You probably have a hard enough time keeping on top of your email at the best of times. The changes you have had to make to respond to the pandemic are likely to make things worse. It is possible you will discover how many meetings could have been emails, but that still means more email. You will probably have a lot more student email, at least in the short term, even if you can’t answer their questions because the decisions need to be taken higher up.
The general sense of uncertainty and anxiety is already making it hard to focus. You are having to make a lot of decisions and that uses up a lot of your cognitive capacity. In this situation you need more structure. It is highly unlikely that anything in your email inbox is truly urgent. Having your email program open all the time, with notifications turned on so that you are aware of new email as soon as it comes in is going to make it even harder for you to focus and get work done.
Maintain boundaries around work time
Although everyone is working flexibly, and many may choose to work outside of normal work hours as a way of managing multiple members of a household working remotely and/or with children at home, it is not reasonable for anyone to expect replies outside of normal working hours. Furthermore, you would not respond to an email during a face-to-face teaching session and it is reasonable to not respond to email during other periods of focused activity.
You can’t control what your colleagues do but you can commit to only sending email during normal working hours. Offline mode will enable you to deal with what’s in your inbox and queue replies and other email in your Outbox to send when you go online on the next working day. Time spent reading the help files for your particular email application and working out how to do this will pay off.
Schedule time to triage email
The definition of urgent varies. Just because you don’t have to deal with it as soon as it comes in doesn’t mean you can leave it indefinitely.
Checking email twice a day should be sufficient for most people. Mid-morning and mid-afternoon are probably the best times. Your goal here is to triage your inbox so you know what tasks are in there and can make decisions. Dealing with the quick stuff at this stage is a good idea.
- Delete anything that needs deleting.
- Read and file any FYI type email, adding key action points to your to do list.
- Group email by category using folders or tags so you can easily see patterns (esp for student queries).
- Add tasks to your to do list and schedule time to do them.
The advantage of mid-morning and mid-afternoon is that it allows you to do focused work in the morning before you get overwhelmed by whatever is there. In the afternoon, you have time to do anything that needs to be done by end of day. And you can make a plan for tomorrow.
Offline mode means you can do this triage work without other email coming in while you are clearing what’s there. Download your email, go offline, triage and queue up quick replies, go back online so they send. You may want to go back offline between your scheduled times as well, especially if you need things in your past email to do the work you will be focusing on.
Do not use email as your to do list
Email is a method of communication. Quick replies are part of the task of triaging your email. Any tasks communicated by email need to go on your to do list. If one email contains more than one task, make sure everything gets on the to do list. Decide when you will do things (as specifically as possible, “later” isn’t a real time), and quickly reply to let the person know when they can expect a reply if it’s going to be more than a couple of days.
This allows you to prioritise the tasks that have been communicated to you by email according to criteria that you set. It also means that you don’t let the reverse chronological sorting of your email set your priorities for you. Make sure that the time you allow for triaging allows for dealing with anything you think doesn’t deserve to be put on a to-do list and scheduled. You may need the occasional extra email triage session to deal with backlog from time to time. That’s okay. It’s still much less stressful than having email notifications distracting you constantly.
Batch student queries
The proportion of student questions that will be unique to that student is going to be low. While not every student will email you, many of their queries will be concerns shared with others in the group. Do not reply individually unless there are specific unique circumstances. Use the functions of your LMS or email program to email the entire class with responses to questions. You can also create a FAQ on the course page of the LMS or somewhere else easily accessible to the students that you update regularly.
You might want to schedule time to deal with student queries and let them know when that is. If you decide to override the normal policy for replying, only do that for a short period to ease the transition and communicate that as a temporary measure. For example, if your normal policy is to reply to student email within 3 working days, you can schedule 2 blocks of time per week to deal with their queries and let them know when they are: Monday mid-morning and Wednesday mid-afternoon would meet that parameter. If you want to reply more frequently to ease the transition, let them know that for the first week (or 2, you decide but be clear), you will be checking more frequently and specify when. This makes expectations clear to everyone and makes it easier for everyone to use their time well.
Use subject lines properly and encourage students to do so
It is going to be much easier to triage your email if the subject line is meaningful. Ask students to put the module/course code or name in the subject line. Always do the same when writing to them: e.g. SOC101: new assignment deadline. Edit the subject line into the correct form when you reply to a student query directly. This will help them triage their email, too. It may take a little while to get used to but it’s good practice.
Use other means of communication where possible
You do not have to use email for this kind of thing, nor do you have to reply by email just because the question was asked by email. If you are having synchronous online office hours, recording them and sharing them with the group, you can also reply to queries that come in by email in that form instead of by email. If you are using some kind of chat forum (Slack, whatever is in your LMS, etc), you can also indicate that you prefer all student queries to come in there and you will reply there so everyone can see and also so students can help each other where possible.
Only being present in the chat and only sending email during normal working hours is a good habit.
Communicate about not communicating
If certain kinds of work are just not a priority during the transition, don’t just ignore emails requesting that kind of work. Yes, it is okay to turn down peer review requests while you get your remote teaching requests sorted. No, it is not acceptable to just delete those requests. Replying to say “no, I cannot do this review at this time” as you triage your email really doesn’t take that much time and means the editor can move on quickly to ask someone else.
You can do the same for any other work you have decided to set aside temporarily. You can even proactively email research collaborators or editors who are waiting for reviews or revisions, letting them know when you plan to pick the project back up again and estimating a new delivery date for whatever they might be expecting from you.
This post is part of a series on Email Overwhelm, where I tackle a variety of practical and emotional issues around email. The associated posts are listed below.
Other posts in this series:
If you are not familiar with the idea of triaging email, this (low cost) produce from Productive Flourishing is a good way to learn and practice it: Email Triage
You don’t need to answer right away! Receivers overestimate how quickly senders expect responses to non-urgent work emails by Laura M.Giurgea & Vanessa K.Bohns