Inbox insanity: A way to unsubscribe?

You’ve got mail. Lots of it, especially if you’re a faculty member. And it’s overwhelming. Those were some of the results of the email poll I did recently. I wrote the post because I am often overwhelmed by email. I was curious to know if others were, too. (My guess was yes.) I was also hoping that someone would have magically figured out how to make the email problem go away. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be a magical solution, but there were some useful tips. In this post, I’ll first give the results of the poll, which I think were interesting. Then I’ll get to some of the suggestions that came in on the blog and via twitter.

The poll

In the poll, I asked:

  1. How many work-related emails are in your inbox now?
  2. What is your goal for the number of work-related emails you aim have in your inbox?
  3. How often do you feel overwhelmed by email?

and then asked for information on the respondent’s current position and age. (I was originally also planning on asking about gender, because I thought it would be interesting to see if there was a difference, but I forgot when I set up the poll. Whoops.)

Before getting to the poll results, a little more on the data, code, and analyses: If you’re interested in the full data set and/or the code I used to analyze it, those are available here. I especially want to focus in on the cross-factor analyses, which I think are the most interesting. These rely on the Likert package by Jason Bryer, which I first learned about from Rayna Harris. It makes really cool figures for this sort of data!

Now, the results:

First, there’s a lot of variation in how many emails people have in their inbox:

currentemailplot

(In response to this question, there were some tweets by people with well over 100,000 emails in their inbox, which makes me want to hyperventilate!)

Perhaps not surprisingly, a lot of people feel overwhelmed by emails:

overwhelmedplot

 

and the number of emails in their inbox relates to how overwhelmed they feel:

likert_13

I wasn’t surprised to see that there’s a clear difference in the number of emails in grad and postdoc inboxes vs. faculty inboxes:

likert_11

My guess is that this is primarily a volume issue. There’s a pretty clear jump in the figure above associated with transitioning from being a postdoc to a faculty member. One possible explanation for this comes from an analysis Arjun Raj did on the email he gets. He finds a lot of it is what he calls “bacn” (google tells me this name is a play on spam), which are emails that he is “in some way supposed to get, but are typically not very important”. This includes things like seminar announcements, tables of contents, emails from vendors, etc. He notes that he gets a ton of this from his university, which matches my experience and that of other faculty I’ve spoken to. So, I think one reason for the volume issue for faculty is that we end up on lots of different mailing lists, which leads to a lot of these “bacn” emails.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see if there was a difference between academia and government, NGO, or industry positions, because there weren’t enough respondents in those categories (4 for industry, 13 for nonprofits, and 23 for government positions).

The suggestions

Okay, so clearly many of us are overwhelmed by email. What to do? There were a few suggestions:

1. Batched inbox: This was my favorite suggestion. (It also is similar to the solution Arjun arrived at for his email problem.) If you use gmail, you can go here and set it up to only allow email through to your inbox at certain times. I currently have mine set to arrive once a day at noon. You can set it to arrive as many (or few) times a day as you want (e.g., hourly, once in the morning once in the evening, etc.). 

Pros: This is a great way to keep myself from getting distracted by emails while I’m working on something – I often reflexively check my email and, this way, if I click over to that tab, there’s nothing to see. And the reason I set it to arrive at noon is to try to preserve mornings for being more focused on writing tasks. It’s nice to feel like I’m not just reacting to emails all the time. And it seems like it’s more efficient to deal with email in batched fashion (as compared to singly as they arrive). Part of this relates to the demands of task switching, but it also relates to many things solving themselves before you get to them. (More on this below.) Arjun found something similar. He wrote:

I didn’t anticipate how much this e-mail filtering would engender peace of mind. I guess I was expending more mental energy that I thought processing all these different e-mails in a single stream. The steady stream of notifications that we all know we should ignore but don’t thinned out considerably, and I felt like my focus was better.

It also recently occurred to me that another advantage to the batched inbox approach is that I won’t get a rejection email from NSF at 8 PM on a Friday. That’s something!

Cons: If I don’t know that something time sensitive is arriving, I miss it. But it’s rare that something is truly so time sensitive that it can’t wait 24 hours. (I did give my lab a heads up about this and told them to text, call, or stop by my office if it’s something they need a reply on right away.) One thing I sometimes remind myself of is that I’m a biology professor, not a transplant surgeon. There’s very little that truly needs my immediate attention.

Procons: (procons are a thing, right?) It’s trivially easy to get around. The mail is really going to a hidden folder, which you can access. That’s good if you are dealing with something time sensitive. (Another work around is to leave an email you’re waiting on a reply for in your inbox, or to check your “sent” folder to look for emails with replies.) That’s bad if I’m just feeling distracted and avoiding focusing on whatever task I really need to be paying attention to. Fortunately, sometimes just the act of having to scroll all the way down to find the hidden folder (I have lots of folders) is enough to give me enough time to realize that I shouldn’t be checking my email.

Other thoughts: I plan to keep this up for now, and am hoping that it will help me wall off more time for focusing on analysis and writing. One advantage of this is that it’s made me realize I don’t get as many emails as I thought I did. (This makes me wonder if there people are as bad at estimating email volume as they are at estimating hours worked.) I was correct, though, in thinking that one hour would not always be sufficient for replying to everything that arrived in a day. Some of that, though, is because I’m mentally viewing some things as “email” when really they’re something else (e.g., replying to an email where I’m hashing out project plans with someone who is not here in Michigan).

I’m also not sure right now how well the batched inbox will work while teaching. I suspect that I will at least need to make the emails arrive more often. One of the overwhelming aspects of teaching a large enrollment course is the email. It’s not clear if this will help with that or make it even harder to keep up. I suppose I’ll find out!

2. Setting up a dedicated email address or website: Related to the overwhelming nature of email for large courses: Several people reported using a specific email address for a large course (say, bio171@emailprovider.com/edu) or telling students that they needed to submit course-related questions via a course management system. The goal here is to make it so one can focus on teaching at certain times and other things at other times. I can definitely see how this could be helpful.

3. Slack: There are lots of folks who love Slack and who find that it really cuts down on email volume. We tried it in my lab but it didn’t work, because people mostly didn’t use it. I think it ended up seeming like another thing to check. So, this might work well for some folks, but not others. And, while it might help with things like emails from lab members, it doesn’t help with the bacn-type emails.

4. To do lists: The idea here is to get things onto a to do list and out of one’s inbox. I already use my google calendar as a sort of to do list (if there’s something that needs to be done, I block off time on my calendar for it, which then serves as a reminder). I also use Remember The Milk as a (free) to do list for longer term things I want to keep track of. I also have a “1 still needs attention” folder so I can easily access emails without them clogging up my inbox. (The “1” in the name is to keep it at the top of my list of folders for easy access.) But several folks recommended todoist in particular and seemed to really love it, so I gave that a shot. I didn’t find it was adding too much beyond Remember The Milk, so stopped using it. But I suspect there are features of it that I didn’t figure out that might have been useful.

5. Sanebox: Another recommendation was for Sanebox, which does automatic email filtering to try to reduce clutter in one’s inbox. I think I would have liked it more if I didn’t set it up just after I set up batched inbox. I didn’t think it was adding much to that, so I cancelled my trial.

6. Getting Things Done: Several people recommended Getting Things Done, and I plan to spend more time thinking about how to implement this. I’ve heard the 2 minute rule before (if you can deal with it in 2 minutes, do it; if not, sort it further, as Chris MacQuarrie describes in more detail in this comment) and try to use that general strategy. But I know there’s more to it and need to spend more time learning about it.

One reason I think I need to think more about this strategy is that I think it relates to the batched inbox approach (which I’ve found useful), and to something Arjun found as a solution to his email problem: being decisive. He wrote:

Decisiveness is hard, and something I’ve struggled with for a long time, both in the context of e-mail or otherwise. And being deliberate is not necessarily a bad thing. But I think most of us tend to undervalue our time, and I feel like being decisive is making a tradeoff between making the best possible decision slowly and making a good enough decision quickly.

I have been being incredibly indecisive about a few things lately, and it is not helping anyone.

7. Don’t try: Some people just give up on controlling the email in their inboxes, letting it reach into the 10s of thousands, or just periodically archiving everything into a folder. This relates to something that works well about Batched Inbox for me: there are a lot of things that resolve themselves in the day it took me to see the email.

On the topic of future reading, other folks have recommended writing by Cal Newport (who is an academic, so has a useful perspective on this), as well as Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age, by historian Ann Blair (which focuses on information overload. . . . in the 16th century). (Here’s an article on the same topic by Blair.) More things for my reading list!

Where am I now? When I wrote my original post, I had 44 emails in my inbox. Right now, I have 9 (plus whatever arrived in the past hour). I was briefly down to inbox zero. This is not too bad, given that my baby and my three year old have both been home sick recently. More importantly, I feel less overwhelmed by email, which is much more important to me than the number of emails in my inbox. So, in my opinion, there’s been a notable improvement (which I mostly attribute to the batched inbox approach). But, at the same time, the comments that “email will never, ever be solved!” are surely correct, too.

So, in summary: many of us are overwhelmed by email, there are strategies for making it a bit better, but email will probably always be a problem for many academics.

 

(ht to Remington Moll for the title idea. The start of the post is an expansion of an idea suggested by Devin Bloom)

3 thoughts on “Inbox insanity: A way to unsubscribe?

  1. Excellent writeup!

    So we did end up using Slack in the lab, but only after a few abortive attempts at using it and similar platforms earlier, for similar reasons of it feeling like yet another thing to check. Now it seems indispensable. I actually think the key is not to think of it as a way to reduce e-mail—if one thinks of it as an e-mail *replacement*, then it is of little additional value. Rather, as a messaging platform, it has opened up a lot more communication between the group because it’s much lower overhead and informal than writing an e-mail, and also far more collaborative. In fact, we still use e-mail sometimes in the group for other things. I view it more like being able to have a conversation than to send correspondence. For instance, we have a channel where lab members can post figures for discussion to the group for everyone to give feedback on, which has proven super useful and productive.

    Anyway, may be worth another chance. I don’t know that it will reduce e-mail by much (it didn’t really do so for me, honestly), but it has had other benefits for us.

  2. I’m one of those with tens of thousands in my inbox, which doesn’t bother me (although I’m thinking about archiving the whole thing one of these days and starting over). The thing that does stress me out is the number of unread messages. Last week I had over 500 unread between my personal and work accounts. Almost all of those were bacn (love that term!). I decided that I need to be better about deleting them immediately and not just thinking I’ll deal with them later. They pile up too quickly now for that to work, and they overwhelm and hide emails that I actually need to respond to. So, for the past week I’ve been better about that and I’m down to 5 unread right now. I’m going to try to keep it up. If I could figure out a way to reduce the bacn emails, I’d be in even better shape!

  3. Glad you mentioned you’re not teaching right now. At a SLAC and at a stage in my career where I am very, very dependent on teaching evaluations for tenure, plus a culture where being Very Available for the students is expected from the admin as well, I’m quicker to answer student emails than I would like to be. I find myself balancing between not wanting to reward last-minute emails and spending mental energy deciding what is the appropriate length of time to let pass. I usually just send right away.

    Important flip side: I have <100 students per semester, so the teaching-related email load is almost certainly less than yours.

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