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Email: Buried Alive

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,”Β “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.

Article written by:

I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.


  1. Matt Cheney

    Great post, Cathie! I’ve tried various methods of dealing with email over the years, since I get 50-100 messages/day of various sorts, and it can easily get overwhelming, especially when only about 10% of what comes in is either really urgent or of particular interest.

    I use some filters and mail rules to help manage things. For a while, I tried what Cory Doctorow suggested in this article to color-code messages from known senders, etc., but I found that my brain just didn’t think that was helpful so much as distracting, so I killed that mail rule. But in Gmail, I’ve got labels for the friends or colleagues I most frequently correspond with, and mail rules to put a label on all emails that come in from a person with a label and to stick that label on it. This means that once it comes in, it’s got a certain level of organization to it, and yet it’s still right there in the inbox (this is why I like Gmail’s labels better than folders — they’re more flexible, and messages can have multiple labels). I also have labels and mail rules for various jobs, etc., that can reliably be predicted by email address or consistent element of subject lines (this is useful for mailing lists — I’ve had to be on a couple mailing lists related to work on awards and conferences I’m associated with, and so those get their own automatic labels).

    Even with an email program that itself doesn’t have a good mail rules function, if it has POP or IMAP, you can get around that with a desktop client. I use Thunderbird, but there are plenty of good ones, and so I’ve got mail rules there that control my PSU account, even though I’ve never bothered to check to see if Zimbra has rules. I also like the desktop client because then I can see both of my primary email addresses at once. Additionally, if something terrible happens with the online side of one of my email addresses, I’ve got downloaded copies of all my email.

    Hansen’s four activities miss one that’s essential to me: archiving. I suppose it’s similar to “defer”, except I don’t just archive stuff I want to do something with later — I archive stuff I want to hold onto for one reason or another. I definitely hold on to too much, but most email doesn’t take up a lot of space, so I err on the side of saving rather than discarding. This has saved me a number of times, because I don’t always know how important an email is when it first comes in, or even when I first read it. But I may not want it sitting in the inbox. So in Gmail I either hit the archive button or in other email I send it to an Archive folder, a folder I know is full of all sorts of useless, dusty, forgotten stuff, but that’s the point. That said, it’s only once or twice a year that I really get my inbox down to 0. My goal most of the time is just to make sure the visible part of the inbox is not overwhelmed, because that’s the biggest danger: something important slipping out of visibility.

  2. Liz

    Ok, I think I have heard of those four d’s before — I will give that a spin. I agree with Matt about archiving, especially now that many things — grad assistant ship contracts, signed advising forms, etc. — are being scanned rather than sent hard copy…you know, “for the files.” anyhow, I have a feeling that once I start deleting, I might really go on a tear….momentum and all….thanks for the post!

  3. John Krueckeberg

    Great article and helpful information in it and the replies — thanks!

  4. Eric Hoffman

    Enjoyed reading this post Cathie. It’s very interesting to talk with folks about how they deal with the e-mail deluge and the various levels of anxiety that this causes. I currently have over 3,000 e-mail in my inbox, but have zero anxiety about it. I think that’s says more about my personality and how I work, because I too have stuff that “slips off my radar” and I’ve tried to work out a system that keeps me from missing stuff.

    Two things I have found useful:
    1) I agree with Matt about archiving. I am an e-mail pack rat. I keep just about everything and delete relatively few things. This comes in very handy when I send important information to my colleagues in my department (they promptly ignore it or delete) and then I have to resend it again later. It also comes in handy when dealing with students. I store my e-mails on my local hard drive….and believe it or not once in a great while I am able to find information from several years ago.
    2) I have tried to only answer e-mails at certain times of the day (and this is usually helpful), but in the age of instant response via text and smartphone, I have also had to manage other people’s expectations that I respond to them ASAP.

    Here’s hoping that the deluge of information can always remain manageable……


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