This post was prompted by the renowned classicist, Mary Beard, stoking up the embers of email stress recently over on Twitter.
for all you guys (women and men) recommending 'delay delivery',. do you know what that means? It means that at 9.00 my inbox is instantly full of questions/messages. To be honest it is worse than having them as they come … just send
— mary beard (@wmarybeard) October 28, 2020
However, this post isn’t about Mary Beard. She is a very privileged academic working in a very high status institution (Cambridge University) and working with another high status institution (the BBC) to reach an even bigger audience. I replied to her, and quote tweeted with my own thread, because that privilege and status affects how her tweets are received, as well as how many people they reach. I hold her to a higher standard.
Emotional barriers to managing email overwhelm
She is probably not alone in feeling this way. Trepidation about what will face you in the morning, or on Monday morning, is a major contributor to resistance against a whole range of technical fixes for email overwhelm. You don’t feel like fixing the problem, because you don’t even feel like dealing with it at all.
Email is like the laundry or dishes. It can be a good thing to empty the hamper or clear the kitchen counters, but they are never going to stay that way. Do not get attached to your inbox staying empty. Your goal, as with the laundry and dishes, is to keep things at a level where you are not so overwhelmed, you freeze.
You need to pay attention to your emotional reactions to figure out which strategies will be most useful for you. (This applies to email, laundry, and dishes btw.) The first step is to notice.
Some people (like my partner) are okay letting things build up to a certain level, but then need to have a blast of activity to get it down to nothing. With both the kitchen (which is his responsibility) and his email, he lets things build up a bit but then gets it right down to zero. Clean counters. Inbox zero.
Some people (like me) are okay with there always being a certain amount of mess as long as the amount is manageable and I know what’s there. I do laundry weekly so it doesn’t pile up but I leave trousers in the laundry hamper until there are enough for a separate load because they take up too much room on the drying rack. I never get to inbox zero, but I triage the inbox regularly and know I’m not forgetting important things.
Figure out what makes you feel overwhelmed and go from there.
Not sending email out of hours
The main point I want to address is the particular strategy which Mary Beard doesn’t like. In discussing this, I got the impression that some people do not know how to deal with their email without sending replies immediately. If you can’t separate those two things, you probably read the advice to not send email out of hours as not to deal with email out of hours.
Let me be absolutely clear; I fully support your right to decide when to do your work, including email. One of the things you value about this job is the level of autonomy and the consequent flexibility to organize your time.
To separate processing from sending, look in the help menu of your email program to find functions such as Offline Mode, Delayed Send, Schedule E-mail or similar options. If the description of my partner resonated with you, you will like Offline Mode. It’s like preventing anyone from coming into the kitchen while you clean and allows you to actually get to inbox zero even if someone sets a dirty cup on the counter 10 minutes after you cleaned it. It can help make the task feel less Sisyphean.
Delayed send might require you to check the default settings for when the email will actually go out and perhaps adjust that to not overwhelm people’s inboxes at 8 a.m. on Monday morning (for example). Scheduled send should allow you to decide different times for different emails. Either or both might work well in combination with Offline Mode.
You are part of a collective that creates that work culture
The objective of a policy to only send email in working hours is twofold:
- Create a culture in which people do not feel pressure to work all the time.
- Allow people to be flexible about when they deal with their own email.
If we had a culture in which normal working hours were regularly encouraged and respected, we would not need this kind of strategy. The fact is we don’t. Although several people will use women with caring responsibilities as their defence of doing email in the evenings or on weekends, I have yet to meet a woman academic with caring responsibilities who does that to compensate for time taken away from work during the day. The routine dismissal of the 40 hour week as inappropriate for academic work is part of this problem.
If we had a culture in which we didn’t treat email as urgent, it wouldn’t matter if you had a lot of email in your inbox first thing in the morning. You would check your email during the time you set aside for doing so. You might triage your email first thing to make sure there was nothing urgent in there that requires you to rearrange your existing plan. But it wouldn’t matter. The fact is, we don’t have that kind of working culture. People routinely send things at the last minute and treat their lack of planning as the recipient’s emergency. Some of your colleagues value their own autonomy much more than yours.
Furthermore, academics routinely ignore the importance of power and hierarchy on the ability of others to choose actions. If the securely employed and senior people in your department routinely send email out of hours, precariously employed and junior colleagues will not be confident that it is acceptable to not check email in the evenings or on weekends. If someone does not feel confident that they can not do something, doing it is not a real choice. Power exists in academic workplaces even if you wish it didn’t. Use your power to enable others to do their best work. Use your power to enable the autonomy of others.
In other words, as I said to Mary Beard in reply to her assertion this was a choice women academics less privileged than she is might make:
So I guess my question to you is, if you want people to send email whenever, what practices do you engage in to create a culture in which everyone feels comfortable to not check email at other times of day? Or to split their work day?
Flexibility, autonomy, and boundaries addresses the underlying issue about the relationship between individual decisions and collective consequences
Not contributing to other people’s email overwhelm includes other strategies for creating a less overwhelming culture
Managing email when you’ve rapidly switched to remote working includes some suggestions for dealing with your own overwhelming inbox. (Do the thing where you notice your own emotional reactions and what helps you first.)
Dealing with email is NOT a task in which I explain “triage” among other things
This post was collated from a Twitter thread in reply to Mary Beard on 29 October 2020 and substantially edited. I have recently held a class in the Academic Writing Studio to address the larger issue of email overwhelm with due attention to the emotional aspects. At the time of writing it is only available to Studio members. Join the Studio to access live classes and group writing meetings.