Email management (#coltt2009)

by Stephanie Chasteen on August 13, 2009

I’m in a session by Sean Myers on email management and triage.  While this isn’t directly related to science education, it’s a piece of technology that we all use.  How to use it more efficiently can help our productivity as educators (or whatever we do).  This was a really great session, and I got a lot of ideas!

We make the wrong assumption, with email, that our time and attention are infinite (says Sean).  We look at our inbox and decide, we’ll deal with it later, move it to a folder, look at it another time.  However, our time and attention are finite, where as the distractions are infinite.

So, he advocates the use of inbox zero, developed by Merlin Mann.  Process your email regularly. Processing is more than checking but less than responding.  If you’re checking on someone’s house, for example, you check in at it, but if there’s a problem, you do something.  So, if you check your email, make sure that you have time to take action on them.  You don’t need to respond to every single email, most don’t require that you respond.

Here are the possible actions to take when you get an email:

  • Delete (or archive). We keep things in our inbox thinking we need to keep it visible.  However, if it’s not relevant now, it’s likely not going to be relevant.  If you want to save it for later, archive it, but keep the folder structure minimal. Don’t complicate your life by making a very complicated folder structure.  One folder for each class, or for each project, makes the most sense.
  • Delegate. If you don’t have time to deal with it, or aren’t the right person, delegate.  If you want to delegate it, be clear with your expectations.  Also follow-up with the original emailer to indicate the action that’s been taken.
  • Respond. Go ahead and respond, and then delete.  Use the “” method — respond to emails with 5 sentences or less.  Get rid of the niceties.  You can put the link in your signature if you’re concerned about being too terse.  Also, beware of having a month’s worth of work in your inbox.  If an email contains a large amount of work, keep the conversation going.  Respond “OK, this is in my task list.”  That sets the expectations, and allows you to delete the original email.
  • Defer. This can be dangerous.  If you don’t have time to deal with something, we often put it off until later. Keep your inbox for unread messages.  You can, however, create a “close of business (COB)” folder for messages that you don’t need to deal with immediately.  Go to that folder once a day to keep it clean.
  • Do. You can do the piece of work or action required, or put it somewhere else (on a task list or on a calendar), and get it out of your inbox!

The chains of habit are to weak to be felt until they are to strong to be broken

– Samuel Johnson

It’s not going to be easy to move to Inbox Zero, but this is something that you will need to work on until you create new habits.

Some tips:

  • Email less. Once an hour, three times a day, whatever works for your schedule.  When you are doing email, dedicate yourself to it until you’re done.  Don’t multitask.
  • Use rules. Automatically move messages to COB folders.  If you don’t want to read it every day, then you can have an “end of week” folder.
  • Be honest with yourself. Are you really going to respond to your email or will it just sit in your inbox? Will it really become relevant?
  • Create email DMZ zone. If you don’t have time to clean up your current inbox, move it to a “demilitarized zone” folder, so you can start with a clean slate.
  • Use templates. If you send the same information multiple times, create a template so you can send the information easily.

So, if you’ve now managed to achieve Netbox Zero, you still have to deal with communicating properly with the rest of the world via email.

Communication tips

  • If you’ll be away, send a calendar invitation indicating when you’re going to be gone (if you have Outlook).  And use a ‘out of office” email message.  This can also be used if you’re doing email less, so people will have realistic expectations about when to hear from you.  Doing email less also helps limit peoples’ unmitigated access to you at all hours of the day.
  • Be concise. See, again the method.  This reduces the noise, though it can seem terse and impersonal.  I have an old boss who used to put every sentence (which were short) on a new line.  That makes it clear what the main points are and lets you count sentences.
  • Respond to question inline. That helps to make the conversation flow clear, as you’re answering just what they asked.  If the conversation changes, change the subject line.
  • Keep it simple. No images, formatting, and only include the necessary recipients.
  • Attachments. Consider using a link instead.  And when you get an attachment, save it somewhere, and delete the email itself.

Great ideas, thanks Sean!

{ 1 comment }

Shari Phiel August 15, 2009 at 4:46 pm

Really great ideas. I have multiple e-mail accounts (personal, professional, and clients) and struggle to keep track of them all. Luckily they all feed into my MS Outlook, but I don’t trust archiving (had a bad experience) so I’m still looking for a good way to handle saving old messages. I’m going to try Sean’s tips and see if that helps. Thanks again.

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