It seems like reaching “inbox zero” is the holy grail for busy people. We are in a never-ending battle with our inbox, and no matter how hard we try, we feel powerless to control the flow of messages sent to us. Part of our dilemma concerning email is that when we manage our email we are also managing our relationships. We worry that we might be seen as rude, lazy, or unorganized if we are slow in our replies. Email creates anxiety!
You’ll never stop people from emailing you. What you can do is control how you deal with email. Below, I share five tips to help you tame your email and keep your inbox under control.
Subject Line Filters
Send your email into designated folders so you can more easily deal with it in batches. For instance, have your students send emails with the name of the course in the subject line, then teach your email to automatically filter those emails into a folder. I find that this has two benefits. It allows you to focus on a smaller set of issues at one time, making your inbox feel less chaotic. Second, you are able to see if there are similarities across emails that you can address in a more efficient manner. For instance, if multiple students have the same question about an assignment, it may make more sense to address that issue in class rather than respond to each individual email (and as any instructor knows, there are likely other students with the same question that aren’t writing you, so they benefit as well).
Don’t only use them for vacation. Give yourself a break from checking email, even if it only lasts a day. Post a message that says “I’m away from my email right now.” It’s not a lie, you ARE away from your email. When you return to your email and realize that the world has not crumbled around you, you’ll be more inclined in the future to go for longer stretches of time without checking your email.
You can probably think of many occasions where you have sent the same email to many different people. Some examples: you’re administering a research study and you have to send a confirmation email to each participant. It’s the beginning of the semester and you’re getting the same question about your syllabus from all of your students. You’re the department chair and there is a course scheduling issue that occurs each semester. Design templates for the email responses you will inevitably send and keep them in your drafts folder.
Set aside a few 30-minute blocks in your day and check as much email as you can. Set a timer. When the buzzer sounds, wrap up and shut down your email. This is the perfect time to deal with all of the filtered emails that you sent to one folder (see the first tip).
Reply at Designated Times
Only send your replies at designated times. This may mean that you write drafts to keep until it’s time to send them out. This is a way of managing expectations for people who email you. You want to let them know that while you don’t respond to emails immediately, they will still know when to expect to hear from you. Of course, if you’re teaching you’ve probably made it clear on your syllabus that you don’t reply to emails after a certain hour each night (if you don’t have that on your syllabus, put it there!). It’s not just students, however, who expect you to be available at all times.
Bonus Tip: get rid of pop-up notifications. This one probably seems obvious, but think about how many pop-up notifications you haven’t deactivated. It’s so easy to think that the pop-ups don’t really influence you, but they do. Even if the pop-up does not push you to check your email, it will be a momentary distraction from your work.
I hope these tips are helpful. If your obstacles to reining in your email are more mental than technical, remember this: nobody is entitled to an email response from you. I’ll be brutally honest: an email is a request for you to devote time to solving someone else’s problem. In some cases, it is your job to help people with their problems. On occasion, you may even want to help them. You might feel bad because someone is waiting for you to respond to them but think about the time you are taking away from your own important work. Your work is more important than 99% of the email you receive.