Academic new-year resolutions: email

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Email is one of the principal blights of modern life for working people. Every day I receive around a hundred that require action of some kind, and many more that can simply be read and archived or else just deleted. Practically, it’s difficult to find ways of keeping up with emails, but I think it’s also worth reflecting on the too-little-remarked moral aspect of email management.

Since the balance of kinds of emails I receive and kinds of ways I need to deal with them depend very much on my job, as an academic, the kind of general advice on how to deal with email that can be read in today’s useful Guardian piece on achieving ‘inbox zero’ is perhaps in need of refinement. So I offer this post blending practical and moral advice for academics in the hope that it might be useful, and that before the new term begins it might even encourage a change of behaviour. I suggest that changing the way we handle email is not only helpful in reducing our own stress levels, but makes us better colleagues and teachers in a number of important ways.

My advice is essentially twofold: to respect the hours of the working week, and to use a package to manage the timing of your emails. I’ll expand on these point by point, but a preliminary bit of advice is simpler: use Gmail, or if you don’t want to, then manage your email in a Gmail style. That is, use your computer like a computer, not like a card filing system. Don’t organize email into an elaborate system of folders that are intended to help you find things later. Simply put everything into a single archive folder and let your computer search for what you need. This will save a lot of time, and if you get into the the habit of hitting the ‘archive’ button as soon as an email has been dealt with (and ‘dealing with’ email doesn’t simply mean writing a reply, as I’ll make clear under point 2), you’ll find your relationship with email transformed. (Tips on how to switch to Gmail, which still makes it possible to retain your existing university email address and appear to send from that if you wish, can be provided in comments below, if anyone would like them.)

1. Respect the 9–5, Monday–Friday, working week

In saying this, I’m not suggesting that you change your working hours, only that you ensure that your emails are sent during these hours (point 2 will explain how to do this by magic). The most important reason to do this, I think, is because it is at best vulgar and at worst bullying behaviour not to. You should never, ever, send an email outside these hours, if you want to be a good colleague. I think it is vital to be absurdly legalistic about this, or else you’ll just allow yourself the odd transgression, which soon enough becomes compulsive, destructive behaviour.

In the first term of my current job, in 2005, like every young lecturer, I worked hideous hours to prepare lecture courses for the first time, keep on top of the paperwork for meetings, and deal with all the teaching requirements. I didn’t do a scrap of research because there wasn’t time. I was up at 6:00 and in bed at 1:00, cooking only at weekends – vast, freezerable meals – and heating up swiftly during the week. I overworked, because I was just starting out in the career and – a pretty universal experience – had totally insufficient induction into a job that we’re simply presumed to know how to do (I’ll leave that for another blogpost). But what made things worse was that, as I finally finished preparing the morning’s lecture at 11:30pm, I’d switch on email and find a lively discussion, taking place in real time, about a meeting that was to happen the next day; or about an application for research funding within the department that it was clear I was meant to chip in on – and I felt very strong pressure to respond, to stay up till 1:00am responding to emails of this kind, so that I appeared to be doing my job well and keeping up with expectations. It made me ill, but I kept at it. Who wouldn’t? I was on a two-year contract and wanted to prove my worth.

Of course, if I’d told my colleagues that they were ruining my life in this way, they’ve have reassured me, completely honestly, that I didn’t need to respond to emails at that time of night, that they just happened to be writing then but didn’t expect anyone else to reply. But while that is all perfectly true, it’s incredibly short-sighted to think that this behaviour doesn’t have an effect, primarily on younger colleagues, who, let’s be honest, are terrified by their responsibilities and their senior colleagues, however warm, chummy, and solicitous they might be. But it also affects colleagues with caring responsibilities for parents or children, or colleagues who simply want to work their contracted hours, 37.5 a week or so, who have friends and family they spend evenings and weekends with – and rightly so.

We all work outside of the 9–5 hours, if not always then sometimes; and we all have different working practices. I don’t suggest that we should change them. I tend to start and finish work much earlier than my colleagues, and I’ve been guilty of sending clumps of emails at 7:00am when I start to blitz my inbox. But I’ve made an effort to stop. Ultimately, emailing outside office hours, which is never necessary, and applies pressure to other people, is boastful. ‘Look at me working at 11:45pm on a Saturday night: see how much more committed to the job I am than you are’ – or, at best, less cynically, ‘See how committed we all are, because we’re all working at 11:45pm on a Saturday night’. The motivations vary. A high-paid professor might want to demonstrate the hard graft they’re putting in for their salary; a junior lecturer might want to show that as well as churning out their REFable research items, they’re ‘being a good colleague’. But the result is that everyone contributes to an environment of high, even mounting pressure to write emails in every waking hour. Even bed and the toilet are not refuges from the constant nagging, and if you have an iPhone in your pocket, your colleagues are there too, biting at your giblets and demanding swift action. You don’t have to have Marxist views of the importance of restricting the hours of the working day to find certain aspects of email behaviour grotesque.

Accepting the need to respect the hours of the working week has consequences. If you want a reply to something by Monday, make sure it’s sent on Thursday. You have no right to require other people to work at weekends, even if you want to do so yourself, so if you send something on a Friday, the earliest time you can expect a response is Tuesday – or if Monday is a big teaching day, then Wednesday, and so on. (This applies also to students, who should consider being more patient and realistic. As Elizabeth Eva Leach tells her students at the start of their first term, musicology is not the fourth emergency service.)

There really is never a good reason to email outside these hours. If someone wants you to respond by 5pm on a certain day, and you don’t get the work done till 10pm, it doesn’t help to send it then. Be properly late: time the email to arrive at 9am next day.

2. Use Boomerang

Boomerang is a browser plugin that was designed for Gmail but it now also works with Outlook, if you don’t want to switch (though, again, I recommend that you do). The brilliant thing about it is that you don’t need your computer switched on for it to work, because it works at the server end (i.e. in the virtual world where the invisible little email postmen live). Unlike other services, you don’t need to be around – beyond a certain point you don’t actually need to be alive – to manage your emails. It is a godsend that I cannot recommend highly enough. With it, you can ensure both that you respect the week’s working hours and that you keep on top of your emails, doing your job better, keeping any remaining hair, and being of more use to your colleagues and students. It achieves various jobs, though I’ll give a few pointers to just the two main ones. Hopefully this will seem exciting and useful without giving a feeling of overload.

Boomerang

2.1. Time email delivery

It’s good to clear emails as soon as practically possible, but to delay their delivery so that people don’t know you’re on email right now, or so that they don’t have to file the message away somewhere themselves and deal with it when they need to.

(a) To help yourself

It’s galling enough to open the inbox and find 50 messages to deal with on a Monday morning. You don’t want to generate more while you’re clearing everything away. With Boomerang, instead of hitting ‘send’, hit ‘send later’, and schedule the delivery for 5pm that day, or any time you like. If the email in question doesn’t need to reach its recipient until 2pm the following Thursday, schedule it for then. The point is not to send emails immediately, because someone is likely to respond while you’re still clearing your inbox. If you’ve got 50 emails to deal with, don’t generate another 20 that will arrive while you’re in the process of responding.

(b) To help others

If someone says ‘please reply by a fortnight on Thursday, so I can collate responses and send them on to the Dean’, time your reply to arrive on or near that date. They’ve got a number of things to pull together at the same time, and you will make their task of organizing it easier if you send your email near the time they want it.

2.2. Don’t just reply: schedule replies and follow-ups

Replying to an email is only the most obvious thing to do with it, and the thing that causes most stress. We often don’t think we can get an email out of our inboxes unless we’ve replied to it properly. But emails require different sorts of response. If a student writes with a quick query about an assignment, it’s generally OK to write two lines and send it immediately (using the delayed sending function if it’s outside the 9–5 window). If a colleague writes something that requires a quick response, I’d still recommend timing delivery at 5pm, so that you don’t get more email interruptions during the day.

But suppose that properly responding to an email will take 4 hours of work. You need to schedule. I don’t timetable every moment of my working week, but I do set aside regular times for recurring jobs like writing references, doing my main administrative work, providing journal and book reports, and so on. These are blocks of time set aside in my working week, and I try to keep them adjusted more or less in line with how much time I realistically have to spend on these tasks each week, so that I more or less keep on top of them.

If an email comes in that requires that kind of lengthy response, Boomerang it. The email will leave your inbox and come back at a time you specify, this being the time that you can properly deal with the message. I Boomerang files for meetings, emails containing documents I need to deal with as director of the Masters programme, and so on. The email has been properly and responsibly dealt with, and the inbox has shrunk.

Sometimes we need to check that someone else has followed up on an email we’ve sent, for instance if we’re sending a grant proposal to someone we’re working with. If we need to know their response within, say, a fortnight, by ticking a box in Boomerang we can have the message, and all its responses (the ‘conversation’, as Gmail calls it), returned to the inbox at a time we specify – and the time will be, probably, the slot in that week when we’re scheduled to do that particular admin or research task. Boomerang is even clever enough that it will, if you ask it to, only return the conversation to your inbox if your correspondent hasn’t replied by that date.

Again, schedule delivery of your emails. If you won’t have time to deal with any responses to your grant proposal in next week’s research slot, because you’ve got to do something else then, time delivery for after next week’s slot, so you can Boomerang your colleague’s response for proper treatment a week later.

Summary

It’s important, both for our own comfort and to be a good citizen, to manage email efficiently and with attention to others. The latter is really the point I want to press, since I don’t think people admit readily enough that their email behaviour applies ugly and destructive pressure on others. Using Gmail and Boomerang I seldom achieve ‘inbox zero’, that state of nirvana when everything has been done – but I very regularly indeed have fewer than 10 emails in my inbox. Boomerang is free to try, then costs about £20 for Outlook, as a one-off payment, or a couple of quid a month to use with Gmail. The email support is excellent: prompt, detailed, friendly, effective. Give it a go.

4 thoughts on “Academic new-year resolutions: email

  1. Thank you so much for this!! I have already been prompted towards this by Elizabeth Eva Leach’s automatic email replies (during holidays, weekends etc) and I love the idea of employing technology to help me in this task – I’ve just finished my first year as a lecturer and do find myself working at nights and weekends but your suggestions seem like they would really help organize my time – thanks!

    1. I’m glad you found it useful. Reducing the workload of people starting out in the profession seems like one of the most important things to do. Once people are through the years of struggle they too soon forget what they were like…

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