Zero In-box

Kerry Ann Rockquemore writes that you can gain control of your e-mail and your time, which is essential on the path to tenure.

February 25, 2015

Dear Kerry Ann,

My e-mail is out of control.

I spend countless hours each week answering e-mails but no matter what I do, I can never seem to get caught up and I always feel behind. I have hundreds of e-mails in my in-box and it’s starting to feel like chaos. As a new tenure-track professor, I need to be focusing on moving my research projects forward, but I feel like I spend all day responding to e-mails.

There must be a better way to manage e-mail then spending all day trying to keep my head above water!


Drowning in E-mail

Dear Drowning,

Many faculty members feel they are facing an ever-increasing flood of e-mail each day, and it’s not uncommon for people to struggle with managing it. The challenge is intensified anytime you transition from one stage of your academic career to another. In your case, it’s highly likely that the sheer volume of e-mail you’re currently receiving is far greater than what you received as a graduate student, and the volume will only increase as your responsibilities increase. It’s also the case that most faculty imagine that if they only had the right strategy, tip or trick they could somehow get “caught up.”

Instead of tips and tricks, I want to suggest something radical: zero in-box. That’s right, I want to suggest that it’s not only possible (but downright liberating) to take your in-box to zero every day, Monday through Friday. The good news is that this is not that difficult. The bad news is that it requires shifting several limiting beliefs and flawed practices in how most people think about and respond to their e-mail.

Let me start by inviting you to examine a few of the most common limiting beliefs academics hold about e-mail.

Limiting Belief #1: I Have No Control Over What Comes Into My In-box

Yes, you do. You can limit what comes in by unsubscribing from Listservs, unplugging e-mail from any social media that may forward messages to it, and whenever something comes in with an unsubscribe button at the bottom: use it. My secret weapon is It’s a free application that constantly monitors my e-mails for subscriptions (so I can quickly and easily unsubscribe) and it compresses those I do want to receive into a single daily e-mail I receive at the end of the workday.

Limiting Belief #2: I Have to Answer Every E-mail, as Soon as Possible

No, you don’t. I have a few short rules on what I respond to (and don’t respond to) that make deleting very easy. For example, if I am cc’d, bcc’d or part of a group e-mail: delete. If someone is asking a collective group of people for a favor (instead of taking the time to ask each person directly): delete. If I’ve never met you and our first point of contact is an e-mail asking for something time-consuming: delete. If I haven’t seen or heard from you in over a decade and you want a letter of recommendation from me: delete. The bottom line is that there are many items that come through my e-mail that I neither need to respond to nor should get involved in.

Limiting Belief #3: Everything Is Equally Important

No, it isn’t. I’ve never been in a promotion and tenure committee where someone’s e-mail response rate was among the criteria for evaluation or the topic of conversation. You know what criteria for promotion and tenure is at your university, and it’s critically important to align how you spend your time with that formula.

If you can release yourself from the limiting beliefs that keep you drowning in e-mail, you can experiment with three steps to get to zero in-box.

Step #1: Quick Triage

Try doing a quick triage several times a day in order to: 1) delete, 2) delegate or 3) put into an ongoing task list. A quick triage simply means scanning your in-box a few times per day and pushing one of three buttons: 1) delete, 2) forward (to delegate to the appropriate person on my team who can attend to the issue or to my task list) or 3) reply (only to things that are truly time sensitive). I’m able to reply quickly to e-mails because I keep myself to a 5-sentence rule: if a response would require more than 5 sentences, I reply by saying, “Sounds like we need a quick conversation. Give me a call when you have 10 minutes to chat.”

Step #2: Create Alternative Spaces for Communication

I try to get teams I lead to communicate via e-mail as minimally as possible. For example, my current team is spread across 23 different cities, and we rarely use e-mail to communicate. Instead, we have alternative spaces for ongoing communication during the day. For example, we use a secret Facebook group for our faculty coaches to interact, problem solve and get questions answered. This has proven faster than e-mail, builds community and keeps everyone engaged when problems arise. I’m not saying a Facebook group is the right solution for your groups, but I am asking you: How could your research team, TA team, active committees, etc. communicate in a space that is not your e-mail? Given that most people feel overwhelmed by e-mail, you may be surprised how willing others are to experiment with alternative spaces of communication.

Step #3: The Sunday Meeting

There’s no point in forwarding e-mails into a to-do list unless you have a weekly commitment to systematically sort and schedule your tasks (that’s why putting them into folders doesn’t work). We’ve trained thousands of new faculty members how to hold a Sunday meeting as a way to sort all of the tasks embedded in your e-mails and plan the week in a way that’s aligned with your evaluation criteria. All of the e-mail tasks that have built up over the week get prioritized, some get put into your calendar for the following week and others get deleted, delegated or renegotiated.

The Real Secret:

You will never get caught up on your e-mail, and that’s O.K. The more you try to master it, the more it builds up. The faster you respond, the more people e-mail you. And the more you prioritize it over your daily writing, the less you will publish. Instead, what would happen if you just lowered the bar on when, who and how fast you need to respond to e-mail and put a few mechanisms in place to get yourself to zero daily? Zero in-box doesn’t mean answering every e-mail within 24 hours, it just means everything that truly matters and can only be done by you will get addressed in the appropriate time. 

I’m sure there are lots of great strategies people can share for managing e-mail, so feel free to add them in the comment section below!


Kerry Ann


Kerry Ann Rockquemore

President and CEO

National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity


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