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Managing email in academia

The day I finally achieved my Inbox Zero I thought I had my email under control, and from now on, managing my email would be much easier.

I had not the slightest idea of how wrong that thought could be.

On an average workday, I spend between 1 and 2 hours on processing email, and it drives me to despair. Given all the tasks I have on my plate, I much rather would be doing some deep work and moving my papers forward, instead of replying and archiving countless messages.

As of now, I’ve reached a modest level of efficiency, based on the following two rules:

1. Fixed time
I try to process email only between 1pm and 2pm on workdays (although that time easily lasts until 3pm). I try not to check my mailbox on other times during the day, but having my mailbox linked to my phone makes that a little difficult at times. Next I’ll try and experiment with keeping my email time to the very last thing of the day, although that probably would mean I just defer reading and replying mails to the next day. Not that the world would burn down if I don’t reply my mails immediately (even though some people start sending me 3 mails begging me to reply ASAP – I thought that’s what phones were for…).

2. Read – Reply – Defer – Archive
During my email processing time, I typically reply all emails that need to be replied. I try to keep my emails short (fits my mildly grumpy conversational style anyway, and it’s more efficient), so typing up a reply usually does not take me much time. When the email is research related and requires action, I save the message in the appropriate folder on my computer, and schedule in some time to work on this task over the next 2 weeks. This scheduling typically means either blocking time in my Google Calendar and/or adding the action to my Todoist account.

I’m getting most messages through in a daily mail, so that has reduced the load on my personal mailbox (Gmail) already quite some. But I’m still getting much more mail that I would actually want.

However, my system seems to be having some glitches. Most of all, because it does take me a lot of time. And virtually every reply I send leads to another email coming in. Maybe the sheer volume of messages is related to the number of projects I have going on – besides the regular spam and worthless crap that gets deleted immediately, I get a lot of emails related to the equipment we are buying to set up the civil engineering laboratory at USFQ, plus the only way I keep in touch with Delft during my Quito months is mostly by email, to keep our joint research moving forward, and then of course there are quite a number of messages throughout the semester from students (very often to ask if we can postpone the deadline of a homework).

So I wonder if it is normal to be spending so much time on email every day? What are your best tips and tricks to reduce your time doing this kind of admin stuff and pump up the hours you have available for deep work? Please let me know in the comments below!

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This Post Has 5 Comments
  1. I've always had a zero inbox (work and personal email) and always wondered why people fret over an overflowing inbox. There is just one thing I do – address each email when I read it. If I need more time to reply (e.g. do some research/check something out) I simply mark it as unread because I have not addressed it adequately. If I feel the email is crucial and requires some serious thinking time, I mark it in my calendar as a To Do. One more thing I've made a rule in my personal mail – no subscriptions to newsletters etc. All recurring reading is covered by RSS – which is neatly categorised and so I know how much time I want to spend on what. Hope this helps!

  2. Do you have separate accounts for work and private mails? I do treat work mails during day but often my personal account remains closed.All my newsletter subscriptions for work directly go into a folder which I check from time to time: I only read the subjects of mails and then delete all that are not important.

  3. Yes, I have separate accounts, but I manage them all through my Outlook. Work mail by far gets the priority, personal mail I archive and reply probably only every 2 or 3 days…

  4. Replying to e-mail does take a lot of time, no matter how good you are at it… I do agree with Chandni that it is best to reply when you read it, otherwise it keeps your thoughts busy…

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