I became the chair of my department a little over a year ago and within a few months, I found myself completely overwhelmed by email. Emails started to get buried in my inbox, either read and then forgotten or never read at all. I realized that I needed to use part of the summer break from teaching to develop a new system for dealing with the volume of emails that I receive in this position.
I have been using email since the 1980’s and have used the same process this entire time to deal with emails. I would keep emails in my inbox that I wanted to pay attention to for some reason (interesting content or information I might need in the future were the two major reasons) and if the email contained a task that I needed to complete in the future, I would mark it as unread. A few years ago, I started to use a system of folders for emails with interesting content or useful information. I maintained my habit of marking future task-oriented emails as unread. This system worked for years for me. Every summer, I spent a couple of hours cleaning up folders and my inbox. It was completely manageable.
As department chair, however, the number of emails that I received increased dramatically. The number of emails with interesting content, useful information or future task information also increased dramatically. But I think the thing that started to bury me is that the number of interruptions that occurred through the course of a day also increased dramatically. What that meant was that I might be in the middle of reading email when someone would come into my office and I would immediately give them my attention. If I was in the middle of reading an email, I might (and often did) forget to complete the process of dealing with the email. So emails with important task information might not get marked as unread or emails with interesting content or useful information might not get filed into the appropriate folders. Or I might forget where in the list of emails I had gotten to in my reading so that some messages were marked unread because I truly had not read them.
I soon found myself with over 2000 emails in my inbox, over 650 of which were marked as unread. A big problem with the unread messages is that I had no way of determining whether they were unread because I really hadn’t read them or because they contained important future task-related information. I was using that category for two very different purposes. I had no idea what those unread emails contained. Organizing my inbox began to feel like an insurmountable task. I began to have anxiety about the idea that I might actually have 650+ tasks that I needed to deal with. And we all know that we don’t work best when we feel overwhelmed and anxious. I knew I had to figure out some other way of dealing with my email.
My book club buddy and I read Time Management for Department Chairs by Christian Hansen. I attended a workshop that he presented at the Academic Chairs Conference that I attended in February in Orlando and although I found much of what he said about time management incredibly useful, I ironically didn’t have time during the Spring semester to implement very many of the ideas he presented. He has a couple of interesting things to say about managing the email deluge that I wanted to try to implement but I really needed to get my email under control first.
Here’s what I did and what I plan to do to keep things organized.
First, I needed to clean up my inbox. I began by reorganizing my folders. I did my normal summer clean up of the folders and then added a folder called “Defer” which I’ll come back to. Then I started on the inbox itself, reading the emails to determine what I was going to do with each one. I had four choices, which Hansen calls “the four D’s.” I could “delete,” “do,” “delegate,” or “defer.” I spent over 10 hours one Sunday deleting emails which needed no response from me or doing whatever task was required by an email if I could deal with it immediately. Doing whatever I needed to do sometimes meant delegating the task to someone else so I wrote a bunch of emails asking others to do things. Other times, “doing” meant answering questions. And still other times, it meant filing the email in one of my email folders. And finally, if dealing with an email required more time than I had available to me that day or required information that I didn’t currently have or required someone else to do something before I could do what I needed to do, I put it into the “Defer” folder that I mentioned early. I can’t explain the elation I felt when I finally had 0 emails in my inbox. What was more amazing than having 0 emails in my inbox was that I only had 9 emails in my “Defer” folder! I had been SO worried about what I wasn’t dealing with and it was such a relief to find that there were only 9 emails that I couldn’t deal with that day.
So that’s how I cleaned up my inbox. Now I have to maintain it and that means implementing a different system for email. Hansen suggests only looking at email at designated times during the day, times when you are unlikely to be interrupted. And the four D’s should be the practice every time you look at your email. I think I can manage this part of the process although it’s difficult to tell in the middle of summer when email only trickles in. The part that might be more difficult to me involves a larger picture time management strategy.
Hansen suggests that we should all abandon the daily to do list. It leads us to be often in crisis because each day we’re only dealing with the things that HAVE to be done on that day. Instead, we should create a master to do list that contains the things that absolutely must be done by a particular day but should also contain things that we’d LIKE to do, things that are not critical but that will help us to be more productive in the long run. A great example of this kind of thing is planning. Many of us would like to develop plans for our departments (or our lives) but that kind of work always gets put on the back burner, to be done when we “have time.” Ironically, not planning often takes more time in the long run as we have to deal with things when we’re in crisis mode rather than ahead of time when we’re thinking clearly. Hansen also suggests that when we’re creating our schedules for the week or the month or the semester, we should put these kinds of tasks on the schedule and actually do them when we schedule them. What does this have to do with the “Defer” email folder? We need to regularly put time in our schedule to deal with the tasks in that folder. In fact, we need to schedule time to review the tasks that are in the folder so that we can then put the tasks on the calendar. It’s this bit that I’m worried about. I worry that there will be crises and I will be unable to resist putting off the “Defer” folder review and planning. But I’m going to really try to implement this step. I think it’s the only way the entire system will work.
One follow-up: In the 10 hours that I spent deleting and otherwise dealing with emails, I clearly didn’t read them all carefully. Just this past week, I got an email from one of the administrators at my University about a student who claimed to have sent me email a week earlier and that I had not responded to. I have no recollection of the email whatsoever but I also don’t doubt that the student sent the email and I simply deleted it unread. When I shared that story with a friend, she said that was her biggest fear in deleting emails, that she will miss something important. And although I acknowledge the risk (especially since it actually happened to me), I still think cleaning up my inbox was worth that risk. If I had not cleaned up my email, that student message would likely have remained buried in my inbox for the week and the student would have complained to the administrator anyway. So I would have had to deal with that issue either way. The difference is that I now feel pretty confident that future student emails (or other emails) will not get buried and I will no longer have this problem. In addition, my anxiety level about my emails is currently at zero which I think makes me more productive. That alone is worth the effort.
I’m curious about how other people deal with the email deluge.