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Author Topic: Handling E-mail  (Read 13521 times)
scatmanblues
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« on: April 23, 2012, 1:55:01 PM »

Hi All,

I am at my wit's end here for a reason that surprises me.  I'm on my first year on the TT, and as part of the annual review process I have been taking some time to reflect about this first year. 

In trying to pinpoint specific things that are and are not working, and to identify the triggers for stress in my life I came to a surprising conclusion.

Email is killing me.  More than anything else, trying to manage email is my biggest source of stress each day. 

It has become aversive to deal with email, and for every hour I ignore it to try and work on other things the inbox just gets bigger.  I get, on average, 75-100 emails a day (of which, probably 30-40 require a response), and I've gotten 200+ on days when some issue is exploding or a deadline is approaching.  It's not unusual for me to spend nearly 2 hours a day working through email. 

I've tried several approaches: addressing them as they come in (destroys my productivity), dealing with them for 10 minutes or so each hour (better, but still disruptive), only checking email first thing in the morning and at the end of the day (most productive, but my colleagues get bent out of shape because I'm not responsive enough).

I'm generally an organized person, but I just can't get a handle on how best to manage the volume of email I am getting as a faculty member.

How do you deal with emails?  What are your tips and tricks for not letting email overwhelm you, but also not missing important messages or communications?  How do you wean colleagues off expecting responses to emails within an hour?

Help!

Scatmanblues
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msparticularity
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« Reply #1 on: April 23, 2012, 2:01:23 PM »

I do the beginning-and-end thing, with occasional glances during the day (every couple of hours) to see if there's anything urgent that requires immediate handling. Would this work for you? You now have a sense of which colleagues demand instant response, so you could just look for them during the day and ignore everything else until later.

And I do most definitely sympathize. I love email in many ways, but when I'm worn down and overwhelmed generally, it becomes a giant, oppressive force that lurks and casts gloom over every aspect of my days.
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weathered
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« Reply #2 on: April 23, 2012, 2:05:26 PM »

For students, I go with one-line response, unless it's a special case. I once made a huge mistake with administrative emails. I skimmed a particular set of message and didn't finish reading to the end (where sender asked me to do XYZ by XYZ date) and got an angry response from the other side. I will never get a second chance to make up for this mistake and the person is still angry at me for my sloppy response.
« Last Edit: April 23, 2012, 2:06:06 PM by weathered » Logged
scampster
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« Reply #3 on: April 23, 2012, 2:10:44 PM »

I'm not a faculty member (postdoc), but I think most of us get lots of e-mail in a day. My strategy is that I usually devote a chunk of time in the morning (say an hour) to e-mail and that's it for the day. I do keep my e-mail open though so that I can respond to fires if necessary. But other than that? Almost nothing is so important that it can't wait until the next morning. It's hard to let go of the sense of obligation to respond promptly, but the more e-mail you write, the more e-mail you get. I try and catch up a bit on weekends, when I get far fewer e-mails in a day.

As for your colleagues, are you in your office most of the time? Are they? Instead of responding to e-mails, I often just go to the office of whoever e-mailed me (which is usually just down the hall) or call them and tell them what they need to know. Sure, that takes time too, but sometimes a five minute conversation can save 10 e-mails. And people don't feel like they are being ignored.

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citrine
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« Reply #4 on: April 23, 2012, 2:26:07 PM »

1) I use filters on my email client to direct email from certain groups/people into specific folders so that I can deal with it later or delete it at my leisure (things like our daily "campus newsletter" or other periodic announcements that are useful sometimes but not urgent, stuff from mailing lists, emails regarding committee work). Another advantage to this is that email that I want to save gets auto-filed for me.

2) I have in my syllabus that students will get a response from me within 48 hours and that they should follow-up with me in person if they don't get a response after that.

3) I use an extension called QuickText on my mail client to automate some of my replies, especially to students. There is a lot of information that I repeat over and over again, and being able to hit reply and then control-1 to insert text like "Dear [Student Name], That looks like a useful topic for this paper, but have you considered [fill in questions here]? Dr. Citrine" saves me so much time because I just have to customize the part of the response that's specific to the student (and for some emails, I don't even have to). The extension pulls the student's name from the email information, so it looks even more personalized than it actually is.

4) I've just let go of answering some things quickly -- I'll do a triage of my inbox and move any non-automoved stuff that is important but not time-dependent to a "to do" folder and then answer what's remaining. When I have a spare few minutes I'll go through the "to do" folder and answer those emails.
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zeeland
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« Reply #5 on: April 23, 2012, 8:44:10 PM »

I have outlook open all day unless I am writing and don't want to be distracted by the new email reminder. If a new email is from an important person and is timely, I respond asap. Other emails I need to respond to I flag for later followup (usually right before I head home or at night as I watch tv).

I end up opening less than half of my emails.  All those list servs, etc usually go unopened.  (I currently have over 600 unread emails in my inbox).

I spend no time organizing the emails into folders. I use search for everything. (All email is forward to gmail, so search is quick and easy) 

Sometimes I miss an email and the sender needs to followup, but as long as that person is not my dean, chair, or senior prof in my dept., no harm done.

I send a lot of emails like this ...  http://science-professor.blogspot.com/2012/03/colleaguepoetry.html
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systeme_d_
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« Reply #6 on: April 23, 2012, 8:49:14 PM »

I just triage throughout the day.

I check email as often as possible, but I only open the ones that are from chairs, colleagues, or high-ranking admins.   I respond immediately if time is of the essence, but if not, I leave the email there and wait until I get home at night.  At home, I deal with all of the non-urgent messages I didn't deal with earlier.
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southerntransplant
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« Reply #7 on: April 23, 2012, 9:31:07 PM »

I keep Outlook closed on my desktop for most of the day. I check email at various points in the day for fiires using my iPhone or iPad, which are both set to grab mail only when I want it to. In this manner I'm not distracted by the little unopened mail icon in the system tray. I'll handle non-urgent stuff in one go near the end of the day.

The frequency of email checking changes depending on whether or not I am expecting news from, say, a sponsor. Like, say, today, during which I kept activating the email icon on my iPad like a nervous rabbit.
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daniel_von_flanagan
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« Reply #8 on: April 23, 2012, 10:31:12 PM »

(1) Never read an email twice.

(2) Whenever you write a careful response to something, copy your best paragraphs to a single, easily-searched document that you can access as boilerplate.  Something similar is bound to come up again.  (I keep meaning to use index card software for this, as I would in researching/writing a paper.)

(3) Remember: when you get tenure, you can safely pretend to not know how to read email.  Note however that this infuriates younger faculty. - DvF
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glowdart
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« Reply #9 on: April 23, 2012, 10:49:18 PM »

(1) Never read an email twice.

This is my biggest challenge.  I see new mail, look at it out of curiosity, regret looking or don't have the materials nearby to answer it, mark it unread, and then get back to much later. 
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copper
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« Reply #10 on: April 23, 2012, 11:03:04 PM »

(2) Whenever you write a careful response to something, copy your best paragraphs to a single, easily-searched document that you can access as boilerplate.  Something similar is bound to come up again.  (I keep meaning to use index card software for this, as I would in researching/writing a paper.)

Index card software?  I'm intrigued. Google turns up something called ndxcards, ways to print your own index cards, and a CHE thread Janewales started that never seemed to come to a conclusion.  Any of these what you use, DvF?

OP, I'm startled by the volume of your email.  What are the major sources of this digital blizzard?  That might help tailor a solution to your problem.

--Cu
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shrek
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« Reply #11 on: April 23, 2012, 11:15:02 PM »

One of the most productive people I know (you know, 3 NIH grants, department chair, and publishes some 5 to 10 papers a year) looks at e-mail twice a day (and answers/acts on it at that time). It took some time to learn about this but it works for them, and everyone seems to have adjusted.
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hungry_ghost
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« Reply #12 on: April 23, 2012, 11:28:49 PM »

How do you wean colleagues off expecting responses to emails within an hour?

They will not die if they do not hear from you immediately. And in the end, we will all die anyhow.
Perspective is important.

A LOT of people do not reply to their email within an hour, or even within 24 hours. The most effective people I know check in once or twice a day like clockwork. The least effective people are on email way too much.

In my experience, people get used to their colleague's email habits. If I don't hear from one colleague in 2 hours, I worry that something horrible has happened to her. Another responds to email after 11pm every evening (weekdays only) (though I suspect that if I were chair I'd hear from her before 5pm) and another checks in after 3pm. Another often doesn't answer email, no idea if he reads it or not. It is always a nice surprise to receive a note from him.

Unfortunately, you've developed a reputation as an "instant responder" and your colleagues now take it for granted.  This happened to me at a previous job.

You need to make that reputation (and the resulting pressure it puts on you) go away. When you make the change, it is going to annoy your colleagues for a while, but they'll get over it. If they say, "why didn't you reply to my email? I sent it 2 hours ago!" say "Oh sorry, I haven't looked at my email since 6am, I've been busy writing/prepping a class/in a meeting/ etc." This does not make you look bad. People who are on email all the time are not productive and they probably know it.

The other suggestions about taking time to set up a filing system or an inbox triage is also helpful. There are tons of tricks for managing student emails, but it sounds like your problem is with colleagues and perhaps administrators.

Good luck.
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daniel_von_flanagan
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« Reply #13 on: April 23, 2012, 11:34:26 PM »

Any of these what you use, DvF?
For email I just use text files.  For papers I use actual index cards (though I have both scrivener and treesheets on my computer, and I really really mean to use them next time). - DvF
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scatmanblues
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« Reply #14 on: April 24, 2012, 12:59:17 AM »

Thanks all,

Hungry_ghost, you've nailed it.  My primary difficulty and stress comes from colleagues and administrators.  I've got the 48 hour bit in my syllabi, and students are not my problem.

I have a supervisor who will call if I don't reply to emails, even after I've told them I won't be checking email until the end of the day.  They also happen to be the person who will cc me on a dozen or so emails a day and have a tendency to "embed" a task for me somewhere beneath a quoted reply.  In the last 2 weeks I've gotten calls asking why I hadn't replied or sent something along, in one case with the phrase, "I'm worried that if I don't hear from you its not going to happen." less than 4 hours after something got sent.  I tried saying I needed to focus on writing and other things during the day and thus I was going to push email back to after 4 each day, but that didn't seem to work.  I've been told that a reply is expected even when there is no task, "Just so I know you're okay!" although that doesn't really hold every time, just randomly.

I have a few colleagues who are the same, but they are more understanding if I push back. 

If I had to break down my inbox it would look like this:
5% -supervisor emails I know I need to reply to
10% -department, college, and university FYI's, etc.
10% -students
15% -colleague emails that may or may not need a reply
15% -supervisor and other "cc's" that don't have obvious needs for replies, but that have the occasional       "hidden trap" response requirement buried in them. 
20% -community/other colleague emails related to joint projects and partnerships
25% -spam, filler, just "stuff" that I typically never open

Obviously the 20% supervisor emails are a huge part of this, and I think the stress of trying not to "miss" something important bleeds over into the other emails.  As "weathered" pointed out, I don't want to make a mistake that alienates anyone.

I'm glad to hear that others set boundaries like "only at beginning and end of day", and it looks like I need to work out some ways to do so myself.

As always, I really appreciate the replies here -you all have amazing perspective.

Scatmanblues
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