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)
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.