How do you manage email?

In this post, I am not giving advice —I’m asking for it! Do you stay on top of your email? If so, how?

First, I’ll start with a survey asking about email:

Being overwhelmed by emails is something I brought up in last week’s Friday Links (also see * below), where I linked to this BBC piece on why we feel busy all the time, even though we’re not. From that piece:

There are always more incoming emails, more meetings, more things to read, more ideas to follow up – and digital mobile technology means you can easily crank through a few more to-do list items at home, or on holiday, or at the gym. The result, inevitably, is feeling overwhelmed: we’re each finite human beings, with finite energy and abilities, attempting to get through an infinite amount. We feel a social pressure to “do it all”, at work and at home, but that’s not just really difficult; it’s a mathematical impossibility.

I then said that I’ve been thinking of writing a post where I ask people to give their strategies on emails, since that often leaves me feeling overwhelmed. Here’s the post!

I strive to be an inbox zero person. My goal is to deal with emails as they come in, either sending a quick reply if it’s something that can be dealt with quickly, or adding it to my to do list (or, more often these days, blocking off time on my calendar to deal with it). I use a “still needs attention” folder for things that I want out of my inbox but will want to be able to access quickly in the future. And I use FollowUpThen to get things out of my inbox but to not forget about them completely.** I also have removed myself from as many mailing lists as I can, and use filters to label and/or filter messages. (And, yes, there are some filters that send some things straight to the trash.)

But, even with a goal of having as few emails in my inbox as possible, and with having spent time this weekend trying to make a concerted effort to get more on top of email, I currently have 44 emails in my inbox (not including the journal TOCs and Google Scholar alerts, which go to a different place) — and I’m about to go away for a couple of days, so that number will go up by a lot in the next couple of days. Is 44 emails terrible? No (and I’m sure many readers have many more emails in there), but it’s enough that I feel like I am not keeping on top of things. This is in part because things remain in my inbox because they still need attention from me. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be in there. So, when I have a lot of messages in my inbox, I feel like I’m generally behind on things.

Perhaps more importantly, it’s only at 44 because I spend a lot of time trying to keep the number low. But, of course, sending emails to reply to them and to try to deal with them just leads to more emails coming back in my inbox. There’s definitely a Red Queen phenomenon with email — it takes all the running/emailing I can do to stay in one place.

And then there’s the issue that dealing with some of the easier to deal with ones means that some of the important ones that require longer responses sit there a long time. Clearly I’m not alone:

I tried to see if we could cut down on some email traffic by using Slack with my lab, but recently declared that experiment a failure. I know it works really well for some labs, but my lab never really took to using it, and it started to feel like another thing I needed to monitor and keep up on.

So, now I’m considering saying I will only email for X hours per day. But should x = 1? 2? 4? I’m not sure. I could easily spend my entire day emailing or in meetings, but that doesn’t leave time for all the other things I need and want to do. It feels like email is a gas that will expand to whatever volume I allow it. So, I can try limiting myself to a couple of hours of email a day. Will that really work? I’m also not sure. I think that will mean some emails just never get dealt with. Is that okay? Do other people just completely ignore some emails? If so, how do they decide which ones to ignore?

Because I often feel overwhelmed by email, I also find myself half wishing that email didn’t exist. I don’t really think I would prefer to be in the pre-internet days, but some days it feels like it would be nice.

So, if you have suggestions for how to manage email, I’d love to hear them. I need to figure out a better way to feel like email isn’t taking over my life! If you use the X hours a day for email approach, what do you do if you aren’t keeping up with emails that way? Delete them? I’d especially love to hear strategies from people who receive lots of email and have lots of other demands on their time — clearly this would all be easier if there was less email and/or if I had more time to devote to it.

Until I figure this out, I’ll just be over here like Mickey:


(source; ht: Alex Bond)

* In an earlier Friday linkfest post, I linked to this post on email response times, which says:

Boomerang’s analysis has found that the average response time is 23 hours, but that’s because there is “a very long tail of people responding very, very late,” says Moah (e.g., the guy who went on vacation and didn’t put his auto-responder on). The point at which 50% of responses have been sent is much sooner: two hours.

Other research has found similar numbers. A paper from researchers at the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering found that the most common email response time is two minutes. Half of responders in this study responded in just under an hour. About 90% of people who were going to respond did so within a day or two.

** For example, I recently forwarded an email I received to someone in my lab, who was in a better position to reply to it. I wanted to make sure it didn’t fall through the cracks, though, so bcc’d on the email, which made the email reappear in my inbox one week later.

Friday links: how to give a chalk talk, the importance of role models, and more

Also this week: blogs as the first draft of the peer-reviewed literature, why you feel busy (even when you’re not), teaching while introverted, David Sloan Wilson vs. economics, “all humans are basically Doc Brown”. Also: funny wildlife photo caption contest!

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Evaluating science in retrospect vs. prospect

It’s often said that nobody dies wishing they’d spent more time at the office. The saying encourages you not to spend your time in a way you’ll come to regret in future.

Except that lots of people do die wishing they’d spent more time at the office. That’s the trouble with trying to live so that you won’t look back with regret in the future: you’re trying to anticipate the preferences of a stranger who you’ll never meet: you, in the future. Future-you may want to look back on different things than Now-you wants right now. Future-you might even want to look back on different things than Now-you thinks Future-you will want to look back on. Youth may be wasted on the young–but only in the eyes of the old.

This isn’t an argument that you should just live for the moment or not make long-term plans. It’s just that evaluating your life in retrospect is different than evaluating it in prospect.

Lately I’ve been wondering about this in the context of science. Do scientists ever look back wishing they’d done different science? Not because of 20-20 hindsight. But just because they’ve changed.

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Serial bullies: an academic failing and the need for crowd-sourced truthtelling

I define a serial bully as somebody who repeatedly bullies new victims and never gets caught or stopped*. I don’t have exact statistics at my fingertips, but it is a definite 90/10 scenario (90% of the bullying is done by 10% of the people) – and it is that small fraction that are the serial bullies. Every campus has a PhD adviser (or three) who repeatedly abuses and victimizes his/her students. And you might have a senior colleague in your department who bullies everybody junior to her/him just because they can. Or you may have met a researcher who will do anything, ethical or not, to “win” at research, leaving behind a trail of people feeling used or abused. And although there are many unique aspects to sexual harassment, it most certainly involves bullying-like abuse of power against someone and it most certainly shares the trait that most offenders repeat over and over without getting called on it (as recent shameful cases to make the news show – just e.g. the Marcy case).You may or may not apply the word bully to all of these cases. But what all these have in common is somebody who is harming other people over and over again with little regard for the consequences, because, well, there usually are no consequences. And that is what I want to talk about.
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Axios Review is working. And now it’s a non-profit. You should try it.

As regular readers will know, I’m on the board of Axios Review, an independent editorial board in ecology and evolution (see old posts here and here). It’s a service that authors can use to get their papers rigorously pre-reviewed by expert reviewers chosen an independent editor, before being referred to a journal of the author’s choice. Quoting from an old post of mine:

Authors get back peer reviews, just like with a journal, along with an editorial decision as to which journals (from an author-supplied list of “targets”) the editor would recommend the ms to (following appropriate revision, if needed). Axios then forwards the ms, reviews, and recommendation to the target journal, asking them if they’d like the paper to be revised and submitted…

Axios Review has benefits for both authors and journals. For authors, the reviews improve the ms, and the referral process prevents you from wasting time by targeting a journal that’s too selective or a bad fit, saving you from unnecessary rejection and resubmission. It also prevents you from losing audience and impact by aiming too low. Journals get pre-reviewed mss that are very likely to meet their standards.

I’m posting on Axios Review again for two reasons. First, Axios Review founder Tim Vines recently updated the board on how the service is working, and on some important changes to the service. I think that information will be of interest to many of you as potential users of Axios Review, so I wanted to pass it along. Second, I used the service myself recently and wanted to share my experience.

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Friday links: the Sixth Extinction (or not), and more

Also this week: philosophers vs. science, today’s reviewers vs. G. E. Hutchinson, and more.

From Jeremy:

Explaining the long-standing male bias of the Canada Research Chair program, especially at the senior (tier 2) level. An insider’s view from Frances Woolley, an economist who once was asked to evaluate the CRC hiring process. In her view, the main problem isn’t subtle biases in CRC reference letters or insufficient effort put into identifying potential women CRC candidates (which isn’t to say that subtle biases don’t exist, of course). Instead, the main problem is that it remains too hard for women to move up the “middle rungs” of the academic career ladder (as opposed to getting on and moving up the lowest rungs–undergrad, grad school, postdoc). Too few women end up becoming the “world-renowned researchers” the CRC program aims to recruit, and those women typically have more attractive opportunities available to them than CRCs. Woolley suggests that if Canada wants to promote both gender balance and excellence in research, it would be better off reallocating CRC money to research grants for junior and mid-career researchers.

If Hutchinson’s “Homage to Santa Rosalia” were reviewed today. See also. Oh, and this as well. And this.

Philosopher of science Adrian Currie on the challenges of getting philosophy of science students to engage with actual science, which is formidably technical. I’m now thinking how to flip this around: how do you most effectively get science majors to engage with philosophy of science? At least at the graduate level and perhaps at the undergraduate level too. Because I do think it’s helpful for them to know and think about some philosophy of science. Related.

Sticking with philosophy of science: Here’s a nice accessible little example of the sorts of questions a philosopher of science asks when reading a typical scientific paper (here, a paleobiological study asking whether a simple computer model can explain key features of the development of both ancient and modern sea urchins). I like reading this sort of thing because it keeps me on my toes. Helps me read science with fresh eyes.

Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame argues that we are not in the midst of a 6th mass extinction, and that saying we are is unhelpful at best and counterproductive at worst. Wide-ranging, covers a lot of ground. Good fodder for a discussion/debate in an ecology or conservation course.

Mathematical constraints in ecology and evolution, part 3: why selection is risk-averse

This is the third post in my series on the importance of mathematical constraints in ecology and evolution. See also parts 1 and 2.

Today’s example of an important mathematical constraint is from evolutionary biology, though it has implications for community ecology as well. Community ecology, like evolutionary biology, is centrally concerned with the relative abundances and relative fitnesses of different types of organism (Vellend 2016). “Relative” is the key word here. As a matter of mathematical necessity, the relative abundances of all species you’re considering have to sum to 1. And the mean relative fitness (relative per-capita growth rate) of all species you’re considering has to equal 1. This ain’t Lake Wobegon; not everybody can be above average. These constraints on the values of relative abundances and relative fitnesses are purely mathematical, not biological. They’re as true of the relative abundances of rocks, and the relative “fitnesses” of linguistic variants, as they are of the relative abundances and fitnesses of species. But these mathematical constraints aren’t merely mathematical. They turn out to have important biological consequences, as Allen Orr (2007) showed in a wonderful little paper. From which I will now shamelessly steal (nothing below is original to me).

Keep reading even if you’re not an evolutionary biologist. This post is short, non-technical, and it’s about something really deep and cool.

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Mathematical constraints in ecology and evolution, part 2: local species richness can’t exceed regional richness

This post is the second in my series on mathematical constraints in ecology. In part 1 we saw an example of a non-obvious mathematical constraint that can’t be removed from one’s data. Today, an example of a mathematical constraint that’s totally obvious, but that has non-obvious consequences. And that fortunately can be removed from one’s data (well, worked around). Today’s topic is one I’ve posted on before, but I’m revisiting it for my ongoing comparative study of mathematical constraints in ecology and what to do about them.

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New postdoctoral program at #UMich

The University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (which is the college that includes my department, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology) has just announced a new postdoctoral fellowship program. To quote from the announcement:

The College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA) at the University of Michigan is excited to announce the LSA Collegiate Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, a major initiative aimed to promote a diverse scholarly environment, encourage outstanding individuals to enter academia, and support scholars committed to diversity.


The purpose of the LSA Collegiate Postdoctoral Fellowship Program is to support promising scholars who are committed to diversity in the academy and to prepare those scholars for possible tenure-track appointments in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at U-M.

More information can be found here. Note that the application deadline is November 7th. (That’s not far off!)