Buried Under Email

Kerry Ann Rockquemore offers five ways to climb out from under piles of old and unopened messages.

October 7, 2015

Dear Kerry Ann,

I’m sending up the scholar-in-distress signal! I am crushed under more than 35,000 unopened or old emails and I don’t know where to begin.

Please help!


Buried Under Email

Dear Buried,

Thank you for being brave enough to admit the size of your inbox! Many people find that a high volume of old and unopened emails is stressful and creates a feeling of perpetual overwhelm. I think we can agree up front that you will never read through all those messages, so let’s lower the bar and think about a few concrete steps you can take this week to get control of your inbox.

Here are five questions that will help you to think through the best way to get out from under that mountain of messages:

#1. Have you considered declaring email bankruptcy?

When you have more than 500 unread emails and feel overwhelmed, you may want to consider declaring email bankruptcy. In your case, that would mean deleting anything prior to the start of the 2015 academic year. The advantage of this approach is that you will have an immediate clean slate and a fresh start. If deleting feels too dramatic or you’re afraid you may need some of the emails in the future, then put them all of them (in one fell swoop) in a folder labeled “35,000.” That way, in the highly unlikely event that you need them, you will still have them. Meanwhile, the file name will remind you how far you’ve come in managing your email.

#2. Are you limiting what comes in?

You will have less email to manage if you can limit what comes into your inbox. There are many ways to do this, but it’s worth starting by disconnecting your email from any social media notifications, unsubscribing from all email Listservs until you get things back under control and creating filters for lists that generate lots of mail but you can’t unsubscribe from (e.g., campus-based Listservs).

Personally, I use a powerful tool that has reduced my incoming email by half: Unroll.me. It performs two critical functions: 1) it automatically detects all the subscriptions in your email so you can quickly unsubscribe from hundreds of lists at one time, and 2) it combines all your informational emails into one message (your “daily roll-up”). It may seem obvious, but every time a company or organization requests your email address, they’re intending to send you email (your account summary, this month’s great deals, a newsletter, event reminders and so on and so on …). These emails add up over time. In fact, using Unroll.me has enabled me to unsubscribe from 293 lists! And more important, I receive one email the end of the day that compiles all of my informational emails in one place, which I frequently skim and delete in less than one minute.

#3. Do you have rapid-response rules?

Once you’ve started to minimize what comes into your inbox, you can begin experimenting with rapid-response rules: just a few simple rules that will help you to make quick judgments about whether you want to delete, delegate or do. I encourage you to ask yourself what are the categories of emails you feel comfortable deleting without responding (group emails, unsolicited manifestos, requests from other people’s graduate students asking you what’s important to read in your field, etc. …). In what situations can (and should) you delegate a request to someone else (such as an RA, TA or departmental staff person)? And how can you differentiate between things to do immediately (they take two minutes or less to respond to) versus things you can send to your to-do list to sort and schedule a time to complete? It doesn’t matter what your specific rapid-response rules are -- it just matters that you implement them consistently.

#4. Have you created templates for routine requests?

I don’t know about you, but the majority of the requests that come into my inbox fall into several categories, such as to: make an appointment or schedule a meeting, review a manuscript, write letters of recommendation, speak on a campus, or make a referral. Because these are consistent, predictable and repetitive patterns, I created templates for my responses so I don’t have to waste time by typing the same information for different people. With templates, you can simply hit ‘reply,’ select a pre-existing template and send. If you’re interested in setting up templates, here’s a quick guide how to add a template in Gmail, developed by Naomi Bolton at Demand Media.

You can start with easy templates, such as a polite response to student requests for information that is in your class syllabus. Or you can create a generic template that says: “This sounds like a conversation, please call me” to use when people send you multipage, overly complex emails. Gradually, you can work your way up to more complex templates, such as a letter of recommendation policy (like this sample by Nancy Koven, associate professor of psychology at Bates College) to use during the letter-writing season. And if you use any kind of online scheduling tool, you can use templates to send students or colleagues directly to your online scheduler -- thereby eliminating the endless back-and-forth emails required to set up meeting times.

Finally, I encourage you to develop the most effective email management system: schedule two short times per day for email, and put these short bursts in your calendar. I put mine at 11:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., and everyone on my team knows I only check email at those times. Scheduling your email time does a few important things. First, it helps you to not check email first thing in the morning (so you can get your most important work done). Second, it conditions others not to expect immediate responses. And third, it keeps you from compulsively checking email every few minutes.

You’re probably not going to go straight from buried under 35,000 emails to a daily zero-inbox practice. But I hope that answering these questions will provide you with a few first steps toward getting your email under control. I’m sure readers will have lots of additional tips and tricks they use to manage their email, and I encourage lots of helpful sharing below in the comments.


Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.

President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity


P.S. I love your questions, so keep posting them on my Facebook page.


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