Recommitting to email boundaries

In November 2016, I did a poll and wrote a post about how overwhelming email can be. About a quarter of respondents to the poll said they rarely or never feel overwhelmed by email. I am not one of them. I’m in the majority that are overwhelmed by email at least some of the time. Other notable poll findings were:

  • people with more emails in their inbox were more likely to feel overwhelmed by email, and
  • faculty were more likely than grad students and postdocs to have a lot of work-related emails in their inbox.

At the time I wrote up the results of that poll, one of the main strategies I settled on for trying to be less overwhelmed by email was to batch my inbox, so that my emails only arrived once or twice a day. The idea is to treat email like regular mail – a thing that arrives at a given time and that you deal with in a batch (or, um, toss on the table and leave there for a while).

After that poll, I switched to using batched inbox to batch my mail. (It was free when I signed up, but I don’t think it is now.) It was amazing how much less overwhelming email was! I wasn’t getting distracted by emails as they arrived in my inbox, I found I actually got less email than I thought, and dealing with them in batches really reduced the amount of time and energy I spent on email. (I’m not alone. Arjun Raj has a post about how much email filtering helped his peace of mind.)

So, I was a fan. But then I started “cheating” and checking the folder where the batched emails hang out until they get dumped into the inbox. And, in the years since then, I have gone through cycles where I recommit to batching, think “OMG, why did I ever stop doing this?!?! Dealing with emails in bulk is so much better!!!”, then start sliding and going back to more of a system of dealing with emails as they come in (why? why do I do this?!? I know it’s counterproductive!), then get completely overwhelmed by emails, then at some point remember that batching is supposed to help with that, at which point I recommit to it and once again think “OMG, why did I ever stop doing this?!?!”

I’m sure there’s a reason why I keep slipping away from a batching system – some of it is probably an avoidance thing (where I’m avoiding something else I should be doing and, hey, if I’m checking email I’m working, right?) and some of it is probably a FOMO thing (though I’ve only once shown up to a meeting that had been canceled at the last minute where I didn’t see the notice because my email was batched, and there are ways to make it so that particular emails do appear in your inbox right away). But, whatever the reasons I do it (and this recent NYTimes piece on procrastination tells me I shouldn’t view this as a character flaw), it’s not good for me. Dealing with email in bulk is better for my productivity and my mental state, and I need to recommit to it.

In the past year, I’ve shifted from using batched inbox to using boomerang. I started using boomerang to schedule emails – while I think people should work at the times that work for them, I also recognize that it can cause stress and send unwanted messages if I’m emailing folks in my lab on the weekends or at 5:45 in the morning. I use it enough that I pay for the personal plan, which includes a “Pause Inbox” option, where I click a button and it stops letting new emails into my inbox:

Screen cap of a gmail inbox. Below the "Compose" button, there's a button with the two line "Pause" symbol. Next to that, it says "Pause Inbox"

When I first made the shift from batching my inbox with batched inbox, I didn’t immediately pause my inbox with boomerang. The steady drip, drip, drip of new emails arriving was overwhelming. But, over time, it seemed less jarring, and I started devoting more and more time to email.

So, I’ve once again recommitted and am once again wondering why I ever got away from this. I do wonder a bit about how it will work in the fall, when I will be teaching a huge (550 student) course all fall and taking on a major university-level service responsibility. But then I remind myself that:

  • it will be even more important to have strategies to deal with email more efficiently then, and
  • I’m a professor, not a transplant surgeon. There are few things that I need to do that are truly urgent, and people in my lab know that they should call or text if it’s something urgent.

So, to conclude:

  • If you get overwhelmed by email and haven’t tried a system for batching messages, it might be worth trying out! And,
  • If you have tried batching and found it useful but, like me, slipped away from it, consider this your nudge to recommit!

5 thoughts on “Recommitting to email boundaries

  1. I actually followed your advice from that last post, cleaned my inbox and started dealing with email in batches and it worked really well for me! 🙂 But istead of receiving them in batches, I process them in batches, at the start of a work day. By going through all emails sequentially, I make sure I won’t leave anything important unresponded and also don’t waste too much time processing everything as it arrives. 🙂

    • Oh, wow! I’ve wondered if I would do less avoiding of emails if I told myself I had to deal with everything in my inbox before letting another batch in. But it might lead to me prioritizing stuff that I shouldn’t.

      • Well, by “processing” I mean either 1) responding; or 2) writing on my to-do list that I have to respond; or 3) responding that I will respond when I have the time and making a note on my to-do list. So if it’s something quick (i.e. less than 5 minutes to respond) or important, I respond right away; otherwise I do one or both of the other options. It seems to work for me…

  2. I guess my strategy is a variant of batching. Personally I find the notion of facing 50 mails at once overwhelming so I access emails ad hoc. But then I deal with them by a 3 step filter:
    1) Do I have to answer? – if not don’t. If its a 10 person email, I can let others weigh in first and only respond if my opinion is not covered by others.
    2) Can I answer it in less than a minute? – is it just a an email where forwarding a document, filling out a doodle poll, etc, works – then do it. This keeps my must handle queue from getting overwhelming large and if I’m peeking at email presumably I have 60 seconds to handle it.
    3) Save it for later – anything that takes more than a minute gets marked for later handling. Since I’ve read the emails I have sense of how time critical my unhandled batch is. Sometimes I do have to get back to it that day. othertimes, I can let things sit for a few days before I have to get back

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