How to deal with admin and e-mail in academia

Eva Lantsoght
7 Jul ’16

Let's talk about that is part of our academic lives, from the category urgent/not important and sometimes even not urgent/ not important: e-mail and administration (review the urgent-important matrix in this post and this post if you need a reminder). If you want to, you can technically spend your entire day playing e-mail ping-pong, or running errands and filing forms.

If you spend all your time waiting for e-mails and administration requests to come your way, you won't be able to move your chore tasks forward. I don't really "hate" e-mail (some administration stuff, I do hate though), I'm just neutral towards it. Certainly sifting through e-mails does not give me the intellectual satisfaction of research, but reading an update from a colleague living far away is quite nice.

So how do I deal with e-mail and administrative tasks? You might remember from 1,5 years ago that I swear by using a weekly template to fit all my activities. In that template, however, I only have 1 hour a day of e-mail, and some days of the week that hour was combined with my office hour. Prior to that, I already yelped in a post about the incredible amounts of time that go into processing e-mail.

Since then, I've still been swamped with e-mail, but I seem to deal with it in a better way. I'll be explaining you all here what works well for me in terms of dealing with e-mail and administration.

1. Inbox zero

Is your mailbox an archive of all your conversations of the last 7 years? It's an inbox, a place where things come in; it's not a place where they are supposed to stay. Imagine having all these messages on a pile on your desk - that wouldn't make you very happy, would it?

One of the best productivity choices I made about 2 years ago was to move towards Inbox Zero. As the name suggests, this means having an empty inbox. If you currently have a large number of messages in your mailbox, why don't you take that number, divide it by 30 and decide to archive n/30 e-mails every day over the next month. At the end of the month, you'll have an Inbox Zero. Easy peasy. If the mailservers of your institution are not fully reliable, you risk losing an important message if you don't have it saved somewhere.

Once you have Inbox Zero, it's a matter of maintaining Inbox Zero. Not necessarily 100% of the time, but perhaps at the end of every week. When you take the time to process e-mail, start from the bottom, read the first message, delete it if you can, reply it if necessary, and archive it if you'll need it in the future. Rinse and repeat until you've processed every message in your mailbox, then close your mailbox and do something else.

2. Fixed time

I try to limit the time I spend on e-mail and administration to 1 - 1,5 hours a day, on my most unproductive time of the day (because replying and archiving e-mails, or dropping forms off at the secretary's does not require that much brain power). I either take an hour after lunch to reply e-mail (when I'm a bit sleepy from eating), or at the very end of the workday (when I'll try to get through this as fast as I can so that I can go home and have dinner).

When I'm not processing e-mail, I do not have my e-mail client open (exceptions: when I am working with an .msg file on something, or in the exceptional case my colleague walks over to me and says: "hey, I sent you a document, can you do Task X with it?"). Another exception is when I am bored/tired and can't concentrate anymore, and decide to open my mailbox to see if there's something interesting in there - but on a typical writing/research/teaching/busybusy kind of day, that doesn't happen easily.

3. Focus towards the end of the week

I already mentioned that Inbox Zero does not imply that you have to guard your status of Inbox Zero 24/7. You could opt for having it cleaned up at the end of every week, for example. I work with Inbox Zero at the end of every week, which means that, if I don't have time for e-mail, I will let it slip on some of the earlier days of the week. Last time I check, replying e-mail was not one of my main tasks on my job description, and I treat it as such.

If I'm doing good progress on my writing one day, I might decide to stick with it a bit longer, and defer e-mail processing to later in the week. As the week goes to its end, I'm typically more tired and with less concentration, so those condition are good enough for sifting through my e-mail messages. Friday afternoon I might be rather tired, and not fresh anymore for tackling difficult research problems, but it's a good time slot for cleaning up my mailbox and being able to start the new week with a fresh slate.

4. Quick reviews on my phone

While I only keep my mailbox open during the time I have allotted to deal with e-mail in a day, I do check a few times a day my e-mail on my phone. I'd check it in the morning while I drink my smoothie, or at a random time during the day when I have a coffee and a snack. If there is something last minute and important, I won't miss it - I've noticed that some people send e-mails to call for meetings just 3 hours prior to the meeting, and they react all shocked when you tell them you didn't check your e-mail (the standard in this world still is to have your mailbox open all the time during work hours, and see every e-mail right when it pops up).

5. Write short messages

It's called e-mail, it's not the beautiful art of writing letters. I get a little itchy when someone writes me epic-length e-mails about work (I love getting detailed long messages from friends and family though when I'm away from home, but that's a whole different beast). Too long blabla e-mails make me want to tell the writer tl;dr... I hardly ever send e-mail longer than a paragraph, and I frequently use bullet lists when coordinating things.

Reading short e-mails that contain all the important information is a joy, replying e-mails with as little words as possible will reduce the time you actually spend typing e-mails, and, typically, short messages are less prone to confusion.

6. Unsubscribe and

Receiving too many promotional e-mails? Unsubscribe if you don't want to receive them. You can use the unsubscribe client, which will revise your subscriptions and ask you if you want to "roll up" your subscription or unsubscribe. Rolling up means that you wont receive the e-mails anymore, but that it will be compiled into one daily e-mail with just the headings of the e-mails from companies you rolled up. You can revise this e-mail quickly to see if you missed anything, and click on the topic to read the full e-mail, if you want to.

7. Plan follow-up

If you send an "important" e-mail, you can add to your to-do list that you need to follow-up with that e-mail. Say you sent a request to your co-author to do something on your paper by the end of the week (Friday, for example). Then you can put a reminder in your to do-list for Monday to revise if your co-author did so, or if you need to give him/her a gentle nudge in the right direction.

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