Drowning in Email

(N.B., Sorry this one is a little longer than normal. It appears I have a lot of things to say about email).

Once I became a postgraduate student, my inbox became a terrifying place. Suddenly I had emails coming from:

  • My supervisor
  • My students
  • Email groups I was signed up to (e.g., all PhD students in the department were in an email group, smaller groups/lab/centres that had an email group etc.)
  • Conference groups (once I attended a conference, I was on their mailing list forever)
  • Alerts from ResearchGate or Google Scholar
  • Emails from collaborators with various drafts attached in the email
  • Emails coordinating meetings
  • Table of contents alerts from journals I had signed up for

The list goes on and on. I had to fix this because unread emails irritate me. I can’t stand that little number that tells me how many potentially important things I might be ignoring. I implemented a few things that might also help you.

Emails from students

At the end of each class I would always say, “if you have any further questions, please email me.” As a result, I would get lots of emails. I decided to change this. Each unit that I taught on had an online discussion forum. So what I told my students in the first class was that if they had a question about anything content related or assignment related, to post them in the discussion forum first. This way others could benefit from the answers and I wasn’t answering the same question again and again. Also, it could be that someone else in the cohort may know the answer and will respond more promptly than I could. But I promised them that I would check the forum once every two days (and once a day close to assignment due dates) and reply to questions there. Doing this really reduced the amount of emails I received from them because I was prompt and reliable with my responses. I kept my promises and they appreciated that. So now I end each class with “if you have any further questions, please put them on the discussion forum”.

Supervisor Emails

Most of the emails from my supervisor were in response to queries I had sent him. Although this was something that I wanted, it still clogged up my inbox. This needed to change. I had a regular fortnightly meeting with him and most of the questions I asked weren’t emergencies. They could wait two weeks until the next meeting. So, every time a question would come to mind between meetings, I would take of note of it (usually in the notes app on my phone) and 15 minutes before the meeting to write out a list of things I wanted to cover. He came to appreciate my list and started bringing his own list to the meeting, joking that I was training him to do this. Most of the questions were resolved in the meeting and I simply took notes. If anything couldn’t be resolved by the meeting, I would send a follow up email afterwards and we would take it from there. This cut down on the number of unnecessary emails we exchanged.

Setting up meetings

My most hated emails were the ones that went something like this “let’s set up a meeting about this. I’m free X and Y… how about you?” And then you would have a long confusing email chain of people spouting their availabilities and then changing their minds… and it went on and on. After some googling, I ended up finding doodle polls (but there are plenty of similar programs). But it essentially allows you to list possible times for a meeting and you send the link to everyone else attending the meeting. They just add their name and tick the times they are free. Once everyone is done, I then just send everyone a calendar invitation and move on with my life. It’s efficient and stops all those emails coming in.

Collaborator emails

In my PhD, typically it would just be my supervisor and I who would see drafts of my thesis, so this wasn’t too much of an issue. However, towards the end of this journey and now working with multiple collaborators on paper drafts has emphasised the importance of managing this process. Before, I would typically send a word document to person A (often my supervisor) of the latest draft. They would read it, make comments, and then send it back. I would save that as the new version of the paper and work on the comments. However, in my first post-doc position, I was in a situation where I would have to send the latest draft out to two or three people. I would then get two or three versions of the same draft all with comments from the various authors that I would have to integrate. One thing that really helped was using an online word document. My institution uses Office 365 (but others may use google docs, both would work). I would create a OneDrive folder and share it with the team. I would save the latest version of the paper in it and simply email the team a link to it when I was ready to have them view it. They would read and comment online and see other collaborators’ comments. (It should be noted that this is the ideal workflow, but not every academic is ready to embrace the future. Some still prefer being sent a word document of their own that they can work with track changes and send it back… sometimes you have to make concessions). But doing this really helped minimise emails as questions to each other were often made in comments on the word document rather than as emails. This type of workflow is still really new (to me and many others in academia) but I think it’s worth persisting with.

Everything else

I still haven’t unsubscribed from the Table of Contents alerts from journals. I really should, as I never read the emails. I have found the Researcher App and when I remember to use it, it’s great. I like that it links with my reference manager and any paper I like the look of gets sent there. I just need to get in the habit of using it more. I still don’t know what to do about the Google Scholar alerts or ResearchGate alerts. But now I have less emails coming at me from other parts of my day, I’ll have the mental space to try and figure out a solution.

I hope some of that was helpful. Are there any other ways to reduce the amount of emails you get? What do you do to streamline your process?

– Alessa

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