Finally, after centuries of refining and improving systems of communication we’ve somehow gotten to the point where humanity has near unlimited ability to share thoughts, instructions, and updates at will. I’m sure advocates for organized communication systems from Johannes Gutenberg to Samuel Morse will turn over in their graves, but I’ll say it anyways… Who has time for that?
Men and women in academia go so far as to check their email on weekends, vacations, and national holidays. Yet, the bubble of unread messages continues to grow day after day, week after week. Have you ever scrolled all the way to the end of your Inbox? It’s a rabbit hole of dozens, hundreds, or thousands of messages. I dare you to comment with how many unread messages are waiting in your inbox right now.
Unread messages are a burden that most academics simply give up on by the time consideration for tenure comes around. “Send it to me again” becomes the solution for anyone asking about a message you sent them last week. If you haven’t already acted on it, it’s already buried under the weight of dozens of emails you receive daily. What else is there to do about it, after all? It’s just the nature of a world in constant communication and everyone seems to have the same problem, so you probably just need to live with the stress. Right?
Anything that causes consistent negative stress and anxiety needs to be managed. That includes email. While it may not be feasible to shut off your email and live in seclusion, there are different tactics that can help manage the email that you receive. Take control of your email account and rediscover that email can be used for good and not just a form of torture.
Full disclosure, most of our guidelines apply to Outlook specifically. However, if you use Gmail, or another email system chances are that you can execute the same plans of attack on those platforms as well.
Tricks to Help Manage Your Academic Email
Stop Checking Email Compulsively
Maybe it’s not the most intuitive thing, but it you want to take control of your inbox you may want to check it less often. If that advice makes you pound your head, think about it. How much time do you spend checking your email, scrolling for something important, shutting it down, checking again ten minutes later, repeat? Email is pervasive. It’s on your laptop, your phone, and your mind all day long. How much time do you actually spend checking email?
Consider taking that time and scheduling it all at once. Literally, put it on your calendar. Break up specific sessions throughout the day to review your email. That means resisting the urge to check between tasks. By taking the time all at once you give yourself the opportunity to check and clear your inbox constructively. Make sure you have time to respond to messages and mark those that require action for after your session. Use your email time constructively and with intention, rather than headache-inducing grief.
Get Emails out of Sight
Use folders to categorize messages that you do not need in your sight. Reserve your inbox for action items and unread messages. Create inbox folders for topics such as Students, Subscribed Messages, Conferences, Specific Projects, and simply Done. Use them diligently. Messages that you have already replied to should be moved out of your inbox.
If you are flagging messages for follow-up and promptly forgetting about them you’re
probably not saving yourself any stress. You can schedule a reminder to follow-up on flagged messages. Simply right-click, select Follow Up, and choose Add Reminder to choose a custom date range and time of day you would like to be reminded to follow up on that message. That way, you can file away the message, freeing up valuable space for messages competing for your attention without worrying about it being out of sight or mind.
Take the Conversation out of Email Altogether
Do you have projects, groups, or a department that is in constant communication? Inevitably you end up clogging each other’s email, getting confused over the latest update, what messages you were or were not included on. It’s tiring. If you receive a regular flood of messages from one particular group of people, chances are you’re not the only one irritated or overwhelmed by it. Consider using another tool besides email. If you’re using Outlook, Microsoft Teams may be a good choice for you. At SSRN we enjoy using both Slack and Trello to organize communications for projects and teams. Slack is great for providing general updates as well as chatting with individuals. Trello is good for keeping steps in a project organized. Changes are made in real-time so that everyone is up-to-date and on the same page.
Set Up Rules
Put some extra time up-front to get anticipated, non-urgent messages out of your inbox. Set up rules from certain email addresses, vendors, or places you have subscriptions to so that they are going directly to a preset folder. You’ll still want to check that folder from time-to-time, but the precious time you allocate for email won’t be wasted trying to sort through messages that are of interest, but not urgent.
Since SSRN eJournals come to your inbox, this could be a good way to start using rules. After you’ve subscribed to any relevant eJournals, designate those messages to go to a specific folder. It’ll be less visual clutter during your work-day, and more organized when you are ready to download peruse the new abstracts and titles.
Email can be a distraction, and each of those emails in your inbox is competing for your attention. We can’t minimize the volume of people and institutions fighting for your time, but we hope these tips help you manage email efficiently so more of your valuable time can be spent on doing new, innovative research.
How do you manage your email account? Let us know in the comments.