Five Tips for Slaying the Email Dragon

Since the vast majority of our correspondence and many of our work tasks arrive in the form of email, it cannot be ignored. And yet academics often fall into the habit of constant checking throughout the day, pulling their attention away from their most important research and taming email dragonwriting goals. One professor says of email, “it’s like cocaine, you just have to touch it…. “ When this scholar asked a senior colleague and the chair of her department for his strategy, he replied that he spends two hours every night going through email. With a spouse and young children at home, upon hearing that, she was ready to give up tenure and apply for a job flipping burgers.

I don’t have a magic bullet to solve your email woes, but these five tips will help:

  1. Stay off email first thing in the day. If you absolutely have to do a triage check to catch anything that is truly urgent, look at home before you go into the office, or set your timer for a fifteen minute screening check before you start work. But once your timer goes off, close out your email, and get to work on your research. Be sure to turn off any icons or sounds that jump up and down on your screen or ping to let you know each time a new message arrives. Often I challenge clients to stay off email for the first two hours of the day, or until noon.
  2. Check your email in batches. After a good block of focused morning time spent on research and/or writing, take the time to work through your email. But then move on to other work. Don’t start checking your in-box every time you want a break. Research on managing energy at work shows that checking email is NOT an effective way to revitalize yourself when your energy lags (more on this next month).
  3. Set regular times when you WILL work through email. Preferably in the afternoon when you don’t need the same level of concentration that you want to bring to crafting theory or finding the story in your data.
  4. Use digital tools to make email management easier. Apps like Todoist will help you to transfer items from email into a task list. Nudge mail and Boomerang remind you of items that you need to track, so you don’t have to leave them hanging out in your in-box.
  5. Stop checking emails on your phone when you are in line at the grocery store or between acts at a play. People often deceive themselves into thinking that they are being efficient, when actually they are only increasing their stress by never allowing themselves a breaks from work. The issues that you can handle on your phone while in line will be quickly dispensed with during your real work time, and the ones that require more focus are too complex to handle while waiting your turn. If the thought of leaving your phone in your pocket is anathema, try it as an experiment for one week. If you hate it, you have the rest of your life to keep your phone glued to your ear. But the sense of freedom from being constantly “on” may surprise you.