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The email, oh I’ve had enough of it

My email is killing me. My work account currently has 263 unread emails in it. How is that even possible? The whole first screen of 30 emails only has two unread emails–one from a digest listserv I mostly delete (guiltily) unread every day, and one a Twitter notification. Where are the rest of them? Who are they from? They are hidden among the 1487 other emails sitting there in my inbox. That’s a crazy, unreasonable number of emails to have hanging around, read or unread, in an inbox.

Then my other account. There’s another 162 unread missives sprinkled amidst the 575 total messages there. A lot of those should have come and gone through my work account, but didn’t because there was a week there where my email wasn’t working at the office and so …

Oh hell. It’s 6:30 in the morning and I’m feeling exhausted and defeated already.

This email lunacy has to stop.

A lot of this I’ve done inadvertently to myself. The Facebook and Twitter notifications. Marketing emails from Apple and Hootsuite and The Gap and Old Navy and Lululemon and Barefoot Yoga. I signed up for most of that, I guess, but now I’m drowning. Why am I still getting email from the makers of EndNote? I don’t even use EndNote. Other software vendors keep bugging me to upgrade, and I just want to hide under my bed. Stop sending me email, Adobe! And I’m looking at you, too, Screenflow!!

I have a lot of text-messagy emails from my husband and my sister that I never seem to delete. That clogs stuff up, too. Oh, and a million HuffPo and NYT and Globe and Mail articles I email to myself from my phone late at night, so I’ll remember to add them to my online bookmarking service from my computer. I just checked and there are 83 messages from myself sitting in my inboxes. Oh God, *I* am the problem.

But there are other problems.

Student emails. I’m teaching a total of 40 first years and 16 grads right now, and I’m on the committees of or supervising another 7 graduate students. It’s paper-writing, grant application reference letter, proposal-writing, thesis drafting time. These emails require my attention, and then my action, and many of them have lots of links or documents in them I need to keep. Meetings I need to schedule. Things I have to keep thinking about and things I have to do. I’m not sure how to make this any better. It’s obviously much better to hear frequently from my grad students than to never hear from them. And some of my graduate assignments require students to meet with me. I really push my first years to send me messages through the LMS, but since that software’s email is so awkward and awful, I get them all forwarded to my university account and often reply from there as well, so it’s not much help. Except at least they have a uniform subject line so I can find them later if they fall through the cracks now.

University emails. If I get one more cryptic memo written for the pleasure of the sending department rather than to meet the needs of the intended recipient, I’m gonna punch somebody, I swear. Noon hour concerts. Talks on medieval political science. Internal marketing about our vision our logo our new revenue generating graduate programs. Memos about plagiarism, about copyright, about religious accommodation for exams. Emails about software updates for machines I don’t use; emails about machine downtime for software I don’t use. Emails warning about email viruses. Emails announcing hirings and retirements and deaths and births. Imprecations to read all these emails more carefully. Reply-alls to the entire faculty of arts, then reply-all apologies to the entire faculty of arts. Some of this (a vanishingly small amount) is important but the sheer volume of completely irrelevant and uninteresting stuff is killing my will to live. Would the institution ever have sent me this many paper memos? Never. And what’s worse? Colleagues who receive these mass mailouts AND FORWARD THEM TO ME AGAIN. Now I’ve received an irrelevant email twice. Awesome.

The one-offs. These I feel the worst about, because they are important. But they are also unique and require thought and so I put off dealing with them, and because they are unique, I then forget about them. They get buried in the avalanche and by lunchtime tomorrow? Three screens down, utterly neglected. Cold-call networking emails from fascinating people. Calls to review. Conference calls sent to me especially. Potential students currently at other institutions. Blog readers with questions. These all keep me awake at night–because that’s when I suddenly remember them, at 3am, when I have to pee.

I easily spend over an hour every day–sometimes significantly more–just dealing with my email and the stuff in it. And then every couple of months I have to spend most of a day mucking it out. It’s awful. This feels like a terrible waste and a terrible burden and just generally inefficient and wrong.

I’m subscribing to the email charter. Have you read it? You should. There’s some pretty sensible stuff in there. Do you think it could work, in a university context? Are you overwhelmed by your email?

Just please don’t ask me how many web browser windows I have open on my desktop right now. Or when I turned into Andy Rooney.

8 thoughts on “The email, oh I’ve had enough of it

  1. (Warning: bossy mode, ignore if you like)

    Your e-mail program has a “rules” function and I suggest you use it. Make your software work for you and sort all of that into folders.

    A folder for the listserve. A folder for messages from yourself (or for Globe and Mail articles, or whatever). A folder for student e-mail. A folder for anything coming from the Dean's office…

    Take the time to click unsubscribe, and whatever websites open when you do, on all those notifications you don't want or read. Turn off notifications on Twitter and Facebook (I keep DM notifications turned on in case I'm not in Twitter and someone contacts me that way. I tend to unfollow anyone who auto-DMs.)

    Don't feel guilty about deleting stuff you aren't reading. Nothing bad happens if you haven't read that newspaper article, for example. Really. Nothing. You won't be a less well informed person.

    E-mail is a tool. Use it so it benefits you.


  2. Bossy is good 😉

    I worry about filters and such (which I do now how to do) because they just hide my problems. My problem is basically that I have too much email for one person to handle. I need less email. So I can turn off some of those notifications, and I will! But some stuff is beyond my control …

    Thanks for this tips! I am going to make a folder for messages from myself right now …


  3. “Would the institution ever have sent me this many paper memos? Never.”

    Ah, you are young. As a certified geezer, I'm still enamored of the efficiency email brings. Every time I go to my departmental mailbox and it's empty I can celebrate. I've only been here about 15 years, but I can attest that the campus mail used to bring paper that absolutely had to be dealt with immediately, twice a day.

    I go back and forth about whether email saves or kills time, all things considered. But my wife and I had kids precisely so that they'd grow up and someone else could phone to order the pizza, so insofar as email prevents phone calls it's an absolute boon. And the one hour on email lets me deal with a dozen separate tasks that in the past might have taken much longer, and in a way that creates a “paper” trail. (Did I nag the disappearing grad student? Why yes I did, and I can prove it. Did I respond to the nag from the such-and-such committee chair? …)

    The time-sucking capacity of email is unquestionable, and it does make it easier for the employer and others to expect to be able to reach you at any time. Being a geezer, I have suspicions but can't say for sure whether various social media are even worse on this score. But my guess is that if it wasn't my email I was fretting about at 3 a.m., I'd fret about something else. Like whether having to pee at 3 a.m. every night is sending me an alarming message about my prostate.


  4. Three things to make it all go away: 1) Folders! 2) a junk account 3) your LMS

    Once you've got folders set up, just file away everything. My Inbox has become my To-Do List. If it's in my Inbox, it needs to be dealt with; otherwise it gets filed away immediately. And because I can't get “real work” done if there's stuff nagging me from my Inbox, my inbox is almost always empty. More than 3-4 emails, I start to get antsy, and I try to have it down to 0 before I go to bed at night. Everything gets answered and filed away, or deleted, almost immediately upon arrival, so there's no build-up–unless it's something major that can't be dealt with within 24 hours of arrival, and even then some of that stuff gets filed away and replaced with a reminder note in my Tasks sidebar in order to further reduce the inbox. An empty inbox = a less stressed me.

    My 1997 Hotmail account is my junk account. Twitter, marketing, and all the crap goes there. I check it every few weeks, if I remember, and delete it all at once then. I know nothing important is there, so I feel no need to check it regularly.

    Likewise, all my student mail is funnelled into Blackboard so I don't have it popping up in my real inbox, which is reserved for research, service, and personal communications. It's a hard-fast rule on every syllabus: mail through Blackboard only unless it's outside the regular semester. I check Blackboard every day (so I tell them, but really it's more like every 2-3 days), and I answer student pleas on my own terms, not on their schedule. It helps, I think, discourage them from thinking we should be at their beck and call 24/7.


  5. Pantagruelle has some great ideas that raise some other useful principles:

    1) not everything requires a response
    2) just because you CAN respond immediately doesn't mean you SHOULD

    Also ddvd reminds me of the problem of all of the paper that used to accumulate on my desk back in the late 90s. As a colleague said then, if you throw it all out indiscriminately, the really important stuff will come back. Someone will remind you.

    There are some things that you can leave undone. Really.


  6. I'm in law – so have a different organization strategy but think its generally applicable. Sort od a less rigorous application of the inbox as a todo list.  I am pretty sure the firm sends me 300 emails a day. At least it feels that way.  And all of our faxes come in as emails.  I also spend a lot of time on my blackberry, so have to be able to manage with that.  

    I have rules set up to deal with a couple of classes of emails that I should read, but don't need to on an instant basis.  This lets me quickly deal with these issues when I want to.

    Each case has a folder.  And cases can drag on for years.  I rename letters from opposing counsel and orders from the court in a standardized way so I can find them by sorting by re line.  If something is really important, and I need to find it often, I flag it for follow up. 

    Each conference gets a folder.  All the work setting up meetings goes in that and follow-up gets a sub folder.  Each paper or book gets a folder.  And I put the final copy I email out in the folder so I can find those later.

    The inbox is reserved for things I have to respond to or urgently need to read. (that stuff I should read, but don't have time to now, has its own folder.)

    If i decide when i read an email whether it should be filed, deleted, or can remain in my inbox, my inbox remains manageable.  It requires a slight shift in thinking to make this decision right away.  But it saves day a month you spend retreading the email and making the same decision.  I also do not deal well with unread emails, so tend to open those in my inbox quickly.  Managing expectations is also key.  Just because I am up at 3am when I get an email from a client doesn't necessarily mean I should be responding right away.  Consider the circumstances.  Even draft the response.  But if it doesn't need to go out that minute, I don't send it.  I don't want to start that habit.

    I have a love/hate relationship with email.  And my inbox builds up when I travel, which drives me nuts.  But when I stick to this system, it works.  Good luck finding one that works for you!!


  7. folders are a really good way to go, especially if you filter everything nicely. I have two email accounts, and I haven't checked the one in months because well, i had to back out of some art commissions because of buying a house, and just didn't want to look at the “boo hoo” emails i would receive.

    I remember earlier in the blog here someone said they were going to dedicate 1 hour a day to email. I think that might help here too. For that one hour you could respond to important emails then file them accordingly as soon as you respond. Or it could be a full hour dedicated to deleting your 400 emails from old navy suggesting you check out their latest sale. which reminds me, i have to unsubscribe from there, since I only ever buy socks from old navy.


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