As my colleagues at semester institutions are trying to finish out their terms and those of us on quarters are gearing up for the start of the spring term during this time of coronavirus online education, email management is more important than ever.
Much more of our communication with colleagues will be through email. And, more importantly, the primary way—or, in some cases, the only way—students will have to contact us, their professors, is through email.
That means that it is more important than ever that we practice good email hygiene: responding to what needs responses, deleting what needs deleted, filing what needs filing, and tucking away for later what needs tucking away.
The typical email strategy and why it’s not the best strategy
In working with faculty, I have seen a lot of email inboxes. It’s not a pretty sight. Thousands of messages in the inbox. Too many messages have been left to linger, and when they drop below the visible screen, they seemingly no longer exist. A lot of those messages were mentally delegated to the deal-with-later box, but you’ve never gotten around to dealing with them. Now your inbox is just one giant shoebox filled with paper.
My friend, it’s time for an intervention. It’s time to deal with those messages.
Your inbox should just contain messages that you need to deal with soon. It should not be a repository of every message you have ever received.
Where to start
In your email program, create two folders. Name one “Move Back to Inbox” and the other one “Archive.”
Highlight the top-most 40 emails, then click and drag them into the Move Back to Inbox folder.
For the remaining emails, select them all. How to do that will vary by email program.
In gmail, click on the box near the top of the page.
Then click on “Select all [x number] conversations in Primary.
Finally, click and drag into your Archive folder.
In the desktop version of Outlook and Office 365 Outlook, press CTRL-A. Click and drag to your Archive folder.
Dealing with the top 40
Now, take the 40 messages that are in your Move Back to Inbox folder and move them back to your inbox.
With the weight of your inbox reduced to 40, it’s time to deal with each message, one by one.
For each message, you have five options.
If this is something you know you don’t need, just delete it.
If you think you might need it later—or if you’re just afraid to throw stuff away—move it to your Archive folder. If your inner librarian needs to file messages according to type of content, then create subfolders in the Archive folder. The search function in today’s email programs is much better than it used to be, but if using subfolders is easier on your brain, it’s okay to do that. I use subfolders.
If you’re going to respond now, respond now. Go ahead. I’ll wait for you here.
Respond later today
If you really think you’ll respond later today, it’s okay to skip the message. For now. If you get to the end of the day, and that email is still sitting in your inbox, see the next point, #5.
Maybe respond/do something with at some future point
These are the messages that are most likely cluttering up your inbox. You don’t want to file them or delete them because you might want them. But, dang, you’re just not sure. Maybe you want to attend that webinar, but maybe you don’t.
For all of these messages, I recommend using Nudgemail. It’s free. Forward the message—along with anything else you’d like to add, such as, “Do I want to attend this webinar?”—to, say, Monday@nudgemail.com. On the next Monday that rolls around, that message will arrive in your inbox. If you’ve decided to attend the webinar, then go sign up for it. If you’ve decided not to, delete the message. If you’re still not sure, in the message will be a snooze option. To give yourself three more days to think about it, click on the 3d link. A new email message will be generated, and just click Send.
In three days, your webinar email will appear in your inbox again. Sign up for it, delete it, or snooze it again. If you need to, keep snoozing the email until the date of the webinar has passed.
To get started with Nudgemail, just send a message to any Nudgemail email address. Send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org, for example. Nudgemail will immediately send you a welcome-to-Nudgemail message—and at the next noon, you’ll get your message back. It does take some time for Nudgemail to process your message, so if you sent your email@example.com message at 11:56am, it probably won’t arrive by noon.
Here’s a cheat sheet for Nudgemail commands, such as specific dates, specific times, and recurring Nudgemails.
For those “respond later today” messages that you didn’t get to, forward them all to firstname.lastname@example.org. Your inbox will now be empty, and you can start again tomorrow.
A note about privacy. All email messages are essentially public. They’re more like postcards than letters. Anyone who has access to an email server can read your email. Additionally, if you are a government employee—as I am, an employee of a state community college—your emails are subject to disclosure through a public records request. I believe that the good folks at Nudgemail.com are not reading my email messages; they have enough of their own emails to read. This is just a reminder that your emails are already pretty public—or could be. Now, if you want to encrypt your email, that’s a whole other ballgame.
Order inbox with oldest first
Now that every message in your inbox has been dealt with, change the order in which your emails appear so that the oldest ones are at the top and the newest ones are at the bottom. This will encourage you to deal with the oldest ones first—which will keep them from piling up.
In gmail, at the top of the page where you see the number of message, click the right-most arrow.
In desktop Outlook, click the arrow to change from newest first to oldest first.
In Office 365 Outlook, click on Filter, select Sort, and then check “Oldest on top.”
Take a few minutes to reset your email inbox. You may be surprised at how much lighter you feel. And, just as importantly, your students and your colleagues will appreciate your quicker email responses.