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Academic life

Change your email habits, change your life

If I had to pick one change I made in my work life that made the biggest difference, it would be how I approach email. I know from working with dozens of clients that email is one of the top issues getting in the way of writing, time management, and general peace of mind. Despite this, it also seems to be an area where many people are deeply resistant to change.

Before you even finish reading this post, some of you will be scoffing and saying to yourselves, “I could never do that.” You’ll have a list of reasons why cutting back on email is simply impossible. I sympathize and I know the problem isn’t you, but rather the structures and institutional norms we’re steeped in. Nonetheless, I want to insist that change is possible.

As a coach, I’m not here to tell you to do things the way I do them. I’d like to share with you, though, the gradual steps I took to get to a point where I check work email once a day, Monday through Friday. That’s right: once a day. And somehow, the 183-year old institution where I work remains standing.

Getting a handle on email

I’m not going to spend a lot of time describing the problem here. We all know what constant email checking brings: distraction, anxiety, trouble sleeping, lack of focus, total destruction of our carefully laid time management plans. Yet many of us feel that we have no choice but to work this way.

If checking and answering email only once a day feels as realistic as walking on the moon, you can start with baby steps. For me, it began with closing my email when I wasn’t actively checking and responding. If you’re constantly on email, here are a few other ways to begin:

  • Stop checking email on Sundays, then add Saturdays. Freeing your weekends is major!
  • Set a time in the evenings after which you’ll no longer check email. Make that time earlier and earlier until it’s no later than 5pm.
  • Give yourself time to do at least one important work task in the morning before you open email.
  • Gradually reduce the number of times you open email during the work day. Getting it down to once in the morning, once in the afternoon could be a game changer.

Supporting habits

To makes these changes possible and sustainable, here are some of the related habits that I practice. These involve setting boundaries, managing expectations, and communicating clearly.

  • Inform students of your email policy and your likely response times. Put this in your syllabus and remind them regularly. (I know this is hard for contingent faculty! But maybe can you reclaim even a day or a few evenings a week?)
  • Tell your departmental colleagues, especially if you’re making a big change. Most people will be supportive and perhaps relieved; they probably don’t like getting emails on evenings or weekends, either.
  • Don’t feel the need to be the first to respond. If you’re one of many people cc’d on an email, consider letting others chime in first. It’s much quicker to say, “I agree with Larry and would just add one thing …”.
  • Recognize that not all emails require a response.
  • Use “schedule send” liberally. Even if you type an email “after hours,” make sure it sends during the work day.
  • Give yourself some lag time. Don’t condition others to expect an immediate response from you.
  • Set auto reply messages or alter your email signature to include your email policy or times. Letting people know when they can expect a response is considerate but also a good boundary.
  • Only open email when you have the time and intention to reply to it.

Mental reminders

The main thing that keeps us from making even a few baby changes is the mental game of “what if.” What if a student needs help at the last minute before an essay is due? What if I need to sign a form before a deadline? What if people are secretly irritated with me for not replying right away? What if the building is burning down??

What if, indeed? Let me assure you that someone at your institution has your phone number and in a true emergency, email will not be the communication method of choice. For all the other stuff, remind yourself regularly that:

  • Other peoples’ failure to plan or manage their time is not your emergency.
  • If a student encounters a last minute problem beyond their control, you are the professor. You can simply give them more time after the fact.
  • Sometimes people need a minute to figure things out by themselves. Answering every question immediately denies them the chance to do this.
  • The imaginary “what ifs” that might happen by not checking email must be balanced against reality: if you don’t finish your dissertation, you won’t get a job. If you don’t finish your book, you’ll be denied tenure. And so on.
  • You’re a role model for others: your students, junior colleagues, staff, etc. Think about the messages you’re sending with your habits.

A last word on email

Changing my email habits has helped me get more of my own writing done, enjoy my colleagues more, sleep better, and feel much less stress during the work day. Once my email time is finished, I often forget about it entirely until the next day! If you don’t think my plan is for you, that’s fine. But let me offer a challenge: try at least one of the things suggested here for one week and see if it makes a difference. I bet it will.