Computers make it easier to do a lot of things,
but most of the things they make it easier to
do don't need to be done.
- Andy Rooney
A final motivator devoted to email management:
1) Have a “two minute rule”.
In the book “Getting Things Done,” time management expert David Allen recommends keeping your inbox empty in order to keep your mind clear. He suggests answering email messages immediately if they will take less than two minutes to compose. For responses that will take longer than two minutes, Allen suggests creating an “Action Folder” and addressing those communications at a planned time.
2) There will be exceptions to the “two minute rule.”
I generally recommend that professors NOT respond to student emails as soon as the messages arrive, even if it will take less than two minutes to respond, because it leads undergraduates to expect immediate feedback. If you routinely reply to student queries within minutes, later in the semester, when you don’t answer the 11pm cry for help the night before the exam, your students will become disgruntled at your “lack of responsiveness.” Don’t train them to expect service 24/7.
3) Create clear, firm email boundaries for students at the beginning of each semester.
Set up a schedule, similar to office hours, for answering student emails. At the beginning of the semester, preferably both verbally and in your syllabus, inform students that you receive so many email requests that it typically takes you a day or two to respond. Then try to stick with a set schedule for responding to student emails. Set up a folder in your browser and only reply to requests at set times that you have scheduled in your day planner. This will allow you to be responsive to students but to avoid being at their beck and call. Having a student email schedule will also put a halt to the irritating experience of having desperate students email you at 11pm the night before a test is planned or a paper due. If you have announced and enforced a set schedule, students will no longer assume that you will reply to all last minute, electronic questions or pleas.
4) Create a separate email accounts for non-essential email.
Some of us just can’t resist reading our e-newsletters, list-serves or favorite blog updates once we open our email. Reading through the daily New York Times headlines, and reading the etymology of the daily word sent by dictionary.com used to be my autopilot practice when I opened my inbox each morning. Now I have my newsletters sent to my gmail account and I plan a time each day for catching up on news. Having a account for non-essentials can lessen distracting temptations.
5) Use folders to organize your email and have regular housecleaning sessions.
If you need to save messages, David Allen recommends setting up a file system for different categories of email. In all of your email programs, create folders for correspondence just as you do for printed material. Empty your inbox on a regular basis – but don’t use peak energy times for this activity. A weekly cleanup session should be sufficient, especially if you have been regularly attending to your “Action File.”
6) Finally, before you send or respond to an email, remember to ask yourself the following question: WHAT IS THE BEST MEDIUM FOR THIS COMMUNICATION?
This is the most important guideline for email management, and is also the easiest to forget, ignore or avoid. All too often, we engage in a conversation via email that would be better conducted in-person or by telephone.
Complex messages take longer to write than to say. Sensitive messages can be easily misunderstood on the computer screen and need the nuances of vocal tones, and perhaps facial expression and body language, to be toned down or sharpened up.
When a message will take longer than two minutes to compose, or when you are feeling a strong emotion about a given communication, always ask yourself whether it would be more effective to pick up the phone or walk down the hall. People could avoid many misunderstandings if they were more careful about when they chose to use email.