Email Sanity

People vary a lot in the quantity and quality of email they receive. Depending on the time of year, I get between fifty and a few hundred messages per day. Some of it requires a timely response and some is reference material that I want or need to read eventually. Some mail can be quickly read and addressed, while other messages require a fair bit of time and effort. I’ve battled my mail with a range of strategies over the years, but have recently found a combination that work pretty well. I share them here in hopes of helping others move toward email sanity.

Limit the times of day you check your mail. Even if a big part of your job is responding to mail, it’s not the only part of your job. You will be far more productive writing or doing other things if you can focus on them. This is way easier if you actively limit distractions. I block off times when I have mail turned off entirely so I don’t get sidetracked by a Bing! with every new message. I hide my Mac’s dock so I don’t have to watch my number of unread messages gradually increase (along with my anxiety). I’ve even turned off the unread count badge on my phone’s Mail app so I don’t get pulled in when just checking my calendar.

If there are particular people you need to respond to right away, you can designate them as VIP’s in the Mac’s Mail app. Then you will get an immediate notification when mail from one of those folks arrives.

Explicitly triage your mail as often as your job requires. At the beginning of the semester, I need to be extra-responsive. Those days I check my mail at least once an hour. Sometimes I’ll check it in between doing other tasks. In these moments I’m looking for things that need immediate responses and addressing them right then. If I have time, I’m also addressing things that take less than a minute just to get them out of my inbox. These might be announcements for things I already know about or confirmations of lunch dates or just really easy questions.

Dedicate time to actually deal with your email. So far, my advice has been to avoid mail as much as possible, but at some point you do need address it. Letting mail accumulate in your inbox is a recipe for anxiety and things falling through the cracks. I’ll take a block of time at least once a day to focus on clearing out my inbox. If I can address the issues raised by a message within five minutes, I’ll do it then. If it’s going to take more than 30 minutes, I’ll move that message to my action folder and add a corresponding task to my to do list so it can be prioritized along with my other work.

I’m flexible about the messages that look like they will take more than five but less than thirty minutes. If I have time, I’ll address them then, but if I’ve got a huge pile of mail and not a lot of time, I’ll leave them alone. Sometimes this means messages stick around in my inbox for a few days, but I now never let something sit there for longer than that. The key is to actually dedicate the time.

Archive and Delete. I spend very little time filing or tagging my mail. If I know I’ll never look at it again, I delete it. Disk space is cheap: If I think there’s even a slight chance I’ll want to see it, I move it to my one and only archive folder. On the Mac, Cmd-Shift-A moves it, and on my phone, it’s one long swipe right. Since this action is so common, it was worth setting up these shortcuts. When the time comes that I need an old message, I rely on search. Every once in a while I can’t find something, but having a very simple storage system saves me huge amounts of time on the front end.

OK, there are a few exceptions: I have the action folder I mentioned above. I have a folders for expenses that I hope to be reimbursed and research articles that I’m saving for reference. And I sometimes have folders for classes in which students email me their work. That said, the vast majority of the mail I receive gets thrown into the big archive folder.

Stay Positive. So many people complain bitterly about email. I heard a student say they don’t check mail because “that’s where all the bad stuff is.” The thing is, there’s also some really important stuff in there. And for most folks, responding to real people through email is a big part of their job. The key is not to let yourself be overwhelmed. In large part, this post is a letter to my future self when I inevitably fall off the wagon and need help getting back on. And trust me, life is a lot better on the wagon than off the wagon.

Want to learn more? There are tremendous resources out there that help you manage your mail. Here are just a few: