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September 2, 2015

How Do You Handle Your Email?

Posted by Tom Leinster

The full-frontal assault of semester begins in Edinburgh in twelve days’ time, and I have been thinking hard about coping strategies. Perhaps the most incessantly attention-grabbing part of that assault is email.

Reader: how do you manage your email? You log on and you have, say, forty new mails. If your mail is like my mail, then that forty is an unholy mixture of teaching-related and admin-related mails, with a relatively small amount of spam and perhaps one or two interesting mails on actual research (at grave peril of being pushed aside by the rest).

So, you’re sitting there with your inbox in front of you. What, precisely, do you do next?

People have all sorts of different styles of approaching their inbox. Some try to deal with each new mail before they’ve read the other new ones. Some read or scan all of them first, before replying to anything. Some do them in batches according to subject. Some use flags. What do you do?

And then, there’s the question of what you do with emails that are read but require action. Do you use your inbox as a reminder of things to do? Do you try to keep your inbox empty? Do you use other folders as “to do” lists?

And for old mails that you’ve dealt with but want to keep, how do you store them? One huge folder? Hundreds, with one for each correspondent? Somewhere in between?

There are all sorts of guides out there telling you how to manage your email effectively, but I’ve never seen one tailored to academics. So I’m curious to know: how do you, dear reader, handle your email?

Posted at September 2, 2015 12:47 PM UTC

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24 Comments & 0 Trackbacks

Re: How Do You Handle Your Email?

I’m also curious to know: when typing “how do you manage your email?” into the search engine DuckDuckGo, why does it autocomplete to “how do you manage your emily”? I suppose it must be a common query.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on September 2, 2015 12:55 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: How Do You Handle Your Email?

Ha! Anyone who figures this out should let me know…

Posted by: Emily Riehl on September 3, 2015 3:58 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: How Do You Handle Your Email?

I use gmail’s web interface. I’ve memorized the keyboard shortcuts, which allows me to move very quickly along the list of emails and delete/archive/reply as needed, without losing my momentum. I try to stick to the “getting things done” philosophy of immediately dealing with those emails that require less than 2 minutes to process, and I find that that leaves only about a handful of emails that require more processing. I leave those in my inbox, and make issues in my TODO list as appropriate. At the end of the day I then go back and (hopefully) archive those remaining emails.

I’m also very aggressive at opting out from mailing lists, reporting spam emails, etc, anything that will reduce the incoming volume. I find that I can usually grab the “meat” from my email in a few bursts of 10 minutes a day.

Posted by: jvk on September 2, 2015 1:18 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: How Do You Handle Your Email?

If I had a good answer to your question, then maybe I’d be left with enough time to post it here.

Posted by: Mark Meckes on September 2, 2015 2:37 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: How Do You Handle Your Email?

But Mark, I look up to you as a model replier-to-email! I want to know your secret.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on September 2, 2015 2:49 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: How Do You Handle Your Email?

I always reply to your emails first.

Posted by: Mark Meckes on September 2, 2015 3:12 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: How Do You Handle Your Email?

:-)

One of my problems is that I often reply to the most mundane emails first. That’s good in some sense, because it gets them out of the way, but what can happen is that by the time I’ve dealt with those, I no longer have the energy to deal with the interesting ones. So they sit there unattended to until the next day — and maybe the next, and the next. (I’m afraid you’ve observed the effects of this.) And then I feel sad and guilty.

Note that in the first sentence of the last paragraph, I said “often” rather than “always”. If I’ve ever replied to one of your mails quickly, that doesn’t mean I thought it was boring…

Posted by: Tom Leinster on September 2, 2015 4:38 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: How Do You Handle Your Email?

I have this problem also, with the most interesting (typically the most mathematical) emails inadvertently de-prioritized and, after a few days languishing in my inbox, entirely forgotten about — only to be rediscovered a few weeks later.

But on the other hand, on occasion the mathematical correspondence in my email approaches such a volume that if I dealt with it all immediately I wouldn’t have time for any of my own research.

All this is to say, I second Tom’s request for a better strategy.

Posted by: Emily Riehl on September 3, 2015 4:04 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: How Do You Handle Your Email?

I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who has that problem. (Anyone reading this to whom I owe an email, I’m sorry…)

Posted by: Mike Shulman on September 3, 2015 8:35 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: How Do You Handle Your Email?

I use the following:

  1. read through everything, deleting as much as possible.
  2. answer any email that will take < 2 minutes to deal with right away.
  3. push everything else to my prioritized task list, which I keep on trello.com

For the task list on trello, I keep seperate boards for teaching, research and administration; I also have a board for weekly priorities. On Sunday, I allocate time to different activities for that week [keeping enough spare time to deal with the expected but unknown stuff], and then try really hard to stick to that.

What I really ought to do is to read my email only 2-3 times per day rather than constantly. But that’s a hard addiction to break.

Posted by: Jacques Carette on September 3, 2015 3:28 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: How Do You Handle Your Email?

Interesting; thanks. 1 and 2 are close to what I do myself, but 3 isn’t. I’ve never had any success in trying to predict how much time tasks will take, nor how much I’ll get done in a week. I don’t know whether that’s my own failing or a feature of my job.

Do you find that your ability to predict how much time things will take has improved over the period you’ve been doing this?

Posted by: Tom Leinster on September 3, 2015 11:49 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: How Do You Handle Your Email?

My predictive abilities have improved, but can still be very far off. Quite recently, I thought I could finish a grant proposal in 1 hour (it was just ‘administrative’ parts left, how long can all that take?), and it took me 5. However, finishing that grant proposal was the most important thing to do, so it was worth spending the time on it.

The principal point is to thoughtfully prioritize what you will work on. Letting your inbox do that for you is not good – and I was doing that for too many years. I use trello as a means to put me in charge of setting the priority of my tasks.

So it is not so much about “I will do X on Tuesday, Y on Wednesday, and thus will finish task Z when that’s done”, but rather “I will explicitly spend some of my time on X on Tuesday, Y on Wednesday, because those are more important than whatever will come in via email on those days”.

Posted by: Jacques Carette on September 3, 2015 1:19 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: How Do You Handle Your Email?

I don’t have a system so much as a collection of habits. Presumably some of these habits are good and some are bad. Here is roughly what I do first thing in the morning:

  1. I scan all my emails, and immediately delete anything I know I won’t have to read.

  2. I read and deal with things like arXiv abstracts (does anyone besides me still get those emailed?) that come on a daily basis. I know from past experience that if I don’t deal with them immediately then they will start piling up.

  3. I immediately respond to things that need an immediate response. (I set a high bar for needing an immediate response.)

  4. I respond to anything else I feel like responding to and have time for at that moment. These are often short messages with a promise of more to come.

  5. Everything that’s still waiting to be dealt with in some way stays in my inbox. This includes things I’ve responded to but still need to deal with, like emails about paper’s I’ve agreed to referee but haven’t finished yet, or the sorts of messages mentioned in step 4. I don’t sort things into folders because I’m too likely to forget about them if they don’t appear in front of my face on a regular basis. I sometimes use a prioritized task list like Jacques mentioned, but I’ve never really made a habit of it, with the result that when I do put things on the list I don’t remember to check the list later.

Things that don’t need an immediate response generally wait until I have some down time later in the day/week/month. If I’m very lucky, in the mean time there will be follow-up messages that mean I don’t have to respond at all; if I’m somewhat less lucky there will be follow-up messages needing response, and I can respond to everything once instead of twice.

I use a webmail system, and generally have my email open in a browser tab all day. Sometimes I close it to keep myself from paying too much attention to it, but not as often as I should.

The reason you, Tom, think I’m especially good about responding to email is that I generally respond to your messages at step 4. I think if you check you’ll find that my quick responses are usually short comments off the top of my head, with a promise of something more considered later on.

Posted by: Mark Meckes on September 3, 2015 3:37 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: How Do You Handle Your Email?

Thanks. I think I waver at step 3. That’s probably something I should work on.

Everything that’s still waiting to be dealt with in some way stays in my inbox. This includes things I’ve responded to but still need to deal with, like emails about paper’s I’ve agreed to referee but haven’t finished yet, or the sorts of messages mentioned in step 4.

So is your inbox ever empty?

I’ve been using more or less the same organizational system since I moved to Edinburgh 3 years ago. However, one thing I didn’t like about it is that I was doing too much via email, e.g. mailing myself to-do tasks and leaving them in the same mail folder as ordinary emails that need replying to or acting on. The pressure of actual emails from other people is enough anyway, so I’m moving now to a less email-centred system.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on September 4, 2015 2:33 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: How Do You Handle Your Email?

So is your inbox ever empty?

No. Occasionally I do my best to purge it, and get it down to about 5 messages. The typical steady-state during the semester is 20-30 (after step 4).

Posted by: Mark Meckes on September 4, 2015 1:51 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: How Do You Handle Your Email?

For priorities:

  1. put our fires (esp. if they are actual fires)
  2. keep my boss and my boss’s boss happy
  3. do/read stuff I enjoy
  4. everything else

my work and personal are separate (I change jobs frequently so the work disappears)

what is more interesting to me is the question of organization. I exclusively let everything pile up into my inbox and do not sort anything. I use artificial intelligence to do my sorting for me, that is I use the search feature.

As someone who grew up getting the books he wanted from the library by writing in pencil on little pieces of paper and watching a librarian put it in a pneumatic tube, then waiting an hour for a number to light up on an old reader board, I am whole heatedly embracing the power of silicon brains to not only answer my questions, but (often) reformulate them for me so that the answer is what I wanted in the first place (exception noted: Let’s not try to organize emily, this sounds like all kinds of trouble).

Posted by: Rob MacDonald on September 3, 2015 6:03 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: How Do You Handle Your Email?

I exclusively let everything pile up into my inbox and do not sort anything.

Thanks: I was hoping to hear from someone who’s the opposite of me. I have a separate folder for just about everyone I communicate with (the main exception being students on courses I’m teaching — I also have one folder per lecture course). That means I have about 750 folders. A while ago, someone put it to me that this was quite a lot, which surprised me at the time; “doesn’t everyone organize themselves like this?”, I thought to myself. But I suppose it is a lot. On the other hand, anything else seems less convenient to me, quite apart from the hassle of changing over now.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on September 4, 2015 2:25 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: How Do You Handle Your Email?

I use my smartphone (bus, train, …) to browse the new emails a first time. At this point, I delete the mails to which I don’t need to answer and I answer if it can be done quickly (i.e. if the answer is short) or if it is urgent.

When I’m on my computer, I respond the the mails which can be answered easily and I mark the others as unread.

Once everything is done, I sort mails in a bunch of folders. Also, if an action require an answer of somebody else, I archive the mail and I try to get it off my mind until the answer come.

Best,

Rafael

Posted by: Raf on September 4, 2015 9:46 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: How Do You Handle Your Email?

Once everything is done

That’s very witty!

Posted by: Tom Leinster on September 4, 2015 4:35 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: How Do You Handle Your Email?

I start by quickly glancing at and deleting email from university administrators. I’m especially quick at deleting mail from administrators where the actual content of the message is in an attached PDF file. I’ve learned that these emails never really matter.

Posted by: John Baez on September 4, 2015 10:55 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: How Do You Handle Your Email?

An ex-colleague at Glasgow had his mail client set up to automatically put all mail from addresses of the form …@admin.gla.ac.uk into his spam folder. He was outraged when the university changed the system so that everyone’s address became name@glasgow.ac.uk.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on September 4, 2015 4:34 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: How Do You Handle Your Email?

I have lots of folders and I have gmail set up to filter anything sent to a mailing list that I’m on. So, for instance, departmental emails don’t go into my inbox. I read those folders less frequently and move anything that needs seeing to into my inbox (that is rare).

Anything that I’ve read and dealt with in my inbox I move to a different folder. My inbox is basically a to-do list, but stuff can pile up in there and I do have things in there from many years ago…

Posted by: Simon Willerton on September 4, 2015 5:05 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: How Do You Handle Your Email?

I’ve never really sat down and thought about my process. I guess what I do is deal with urgent things first, then things that can be done quickly without much thought, then proceed to the rest in a fairly arbitrary shuffle of the “most interesting” and “most important” orderings. (Of course, as time passes, the “most important” ordering changes, so that stuff with a deadline eventually bubbles to the top.) I always glance at all the mail so I know how to classify it, but sometimes I leave some of it unread if reading it is part of what would take time.

I unfortunately still use my inbox as part of my to-do list (but not all of it – I also use google tasks and google calendar). These days I usually have about 80-90 messages in my inbox, most of which (especially towards the bottom) are of the sort “someday I should really do something about this and I don’t want to forget about it, but there’s no time pressure”. The important ones I put stars on, and the really important ones I leave as “unread” even if I’ve actually read them. Every so often (like, once or maybe twice a year) I have some time and a fit of energy and I whack it down to more like 50 messages. My dream is that one day it will get down to zero.

As for storing old messages I want to keep, I do have some folders (actually, “labels”, since I use gmail web interface – I still don’t understand why hardly any other email client has caught on to using labels instead of folders) that I assign things to manually. But since I don’t always remember to assign labels to everything, when I want to find something I generally end up searching through all my email anyway (which gmail makes really easy), so it’s not clear that assigning those labels was really worthwhile. The labels are more useful for the emails that are still in my inbox, because they’re color-coded, and also for writing filters that automatically label messages from various mailing lists or people. Most of my mail stays unlabeled, but is still easily findable by search, if I can remember an appropriate keyword. (Interestingly, this means that occasionally when a friend sends me some email that I want to be able to find later, I forward it to myself with the only purpose of inserting an appropriate keyword, so that the conversation will pop up later on when I search for that keyword.)

In general my “system” seems very ad hoc, doesn’t it? Clearly I could do better if I put some effort into it…

Posted by: Mike Shulman on September 4, 2015 5:40 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: How Do You Handle Your Email?

Here are some things I do:

  1. Have separate email addresses as a top-level filtering technique. One for teaching, one for research, etc.

  2. Use filtering in your webmail or mail client to filter certain messages to certain folders. You could ask all students to put the course code in the subject line, and filter those into a ‘teaching’ folder.

The logic being that it’s easier to go through all messages of a certain type rather than randomly browse.

  1. Use filtering to color code/tag/star messages that you might find important: such as those from certain people such as colleagues. Most mail clients can do this, and perhaps gmail can as well.

  2. Have a specific checking email time, and don’t check it at any other time. In the email time, devote your full mental energies to vanquish all the email tasks with maximum efficiency.

Posted by: Jason Polak on September 18, 2015 5:11 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

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