Three Strategies for Reducing E-mail-Related Stress

Rows of mailboxes

In a recent Technology Fellows meeting, the conversation turned to the topic of e-mail.  Faculty in the room expressed frustration with the burden imposed by ever-increasing e-mail inboxes.  For many, messages from students, administrators, committees, and peers pile up and create a crowded inbox, with hundreds of unread or unfiled e-mails.  Here are a few strategies I use to help manage the e-mail burden.

  1. Bundle your e-mail. Bundling is simply the idea of grouping similar kinds of e-mails together to be dealt with at the same time. First, survey your inbox, quickly organizing your unread or skimmed messages into types (“bundles”). You can individualize your bundle structures:  Leo Garofolo uses a system that balances importance with urgency. I tend to group e-mails based on tasks, for example, answering all scheduling e-mails at once, or all student e-mails at the same time. Gmail’s Inbox can facilitate bundling, but it’s not yet available for Google educational software. Instead, you can set up your own e-mail folders (Scheduling, Students, Committee Work, etc.) and drag unread or skimmed e-mail into these folders. Open a folder when you have a few moments and process all of the e-mails in the folder together.
  2. Set expectations. Setting clear boundaries can limit the intrusive nature of e-mail.  This requires some consideration of your preferences. What would your ideal relationship with e-mail look like? When and how often would you like to check and process e-mail?  What kind of turn-around time is reasonable given daily demands on your time? What about weekends and scheduled breaks? Come to your own conclusions about the role of e-mail in your day. Consider stating these guidelines in your course syllabus to help students understand when they can expect you to respond to their messages (or suggest they take advantage of the liberal arts environment and come to office hours instead). Use an automatic responder during vacations or times of intense work to clearly communicate your e-mail practices.
  3. Schedule your e-mails with Boomerang. Scheduling your e-mail can help you adhere to your own e-mail best practices. If you have time to process e-mail outside of your normal e-mail hours but don’t want students to see that you’re sending messages at 2AM, you can write your response but use an e-mail scheduling app to deliver the e-mail at a later date. I use the free Gmail extension Boomerang.

Summer, with its decreased e-mail load, can be a great time to re-think your relationship with e-mail.  In the end, though, ProfHacker’s Natalie Houston may have the best advice for those overwhelmed with e-mail:  Ten Things to Do Instead of Checking E-mail.

Image credit: Got Mail??? flickr photo by katerha https://flickr.com/photos/katerha/7372776674 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

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