I love serendipity. Shortly after I talked to a client about email in her relationship with research collaborators, this appeared in my TweetStream from a Romantic literature scholar I follow:
“Attending to correspondence” sounds so much more pleasant than “answering e-mails,” so that’s what I’m gonna call it. #passthescones
Your email, like the correspondence an 18th Century lady would be attending to, may be of several different types. My client and I figured out that part of the issue she faced was dealing with email as if everything in her inbox was similar.
While it is important to deal with email promptly, what it means to “deal with” it varies depending on the content of the email. Some common types of email, sorted by how you might deal with them:
1) Stuff you just need to archive:
- written confirmation of decisions made in a meeting, phone call, etc.
- information circulated to all members of a group to keep you in the loop
- acknowledgement that someone has received your email (your choice; you might just delete now you know)
- anything else that doesn’t require action but may need to be referred to later
Some of this might require you to take time to read it carefully before you archive. You don’t have to do that NOW. You get to decide when you do that task. Reading something is not “dealing with email”. It has it’s own purpose and can be allocated time according to that purpose.
2) Stuff you can just delete
- things you know you don’t have time to read
- unnecessary acknowledgement replies sent to everyone CC’d on that information circulated to keep you in the loop
- acknowledgement that someone has received your email (your choice; this might be something you archive for future reference)
Don’t waste time railing against the idiocy of reply-all, or the amount of spam you receive, or at yourself for subscribing to that newsletter or e-list that you never read or frequently has uninteresting things in it.
Just delete. It’s so much faster. If it’s a subscription, consider taking the extra time now to unsubscribe, to save you having to delete more messages later.
3) Stuff that requires quick action
- you need to confirm something
- You need to provide information that is in your head or really easy to find
- You need to arrange a meeting
- You have a standard reply you can send
This you can do immediately. Then archive the message.
4) Stuff that requires research, thought, or other work before replying.
- comments on drafts
- replies to long complex contributions to an ongoing discussion
- sorting out something for a student that requires checking on regulations, past correspondence, consulting with colleagues, or some such.
Attending to your complicated correspondence
Your primary objective in dealing with this 4th type of email is not “get it off my desk”.
Start by identify the purpose responding to this email serves:
- resolving a problem for a student
- advancing your research project
- making a contribution to a committee
- building/maintaining a good working relationship with a colleague
- [insert your objective here]
You are not doing yourself or your correspondent any favours by trying to reply to the 4th type of email as you are sorting through your inbox. Deal with these longer more complicated email messages alongside other tasks that are similar. This reduces the amount of energy you expend code-switching. The similarity is not form (email) but purpose.
Before you go any further ask yourself one crucial question:
“Is this objective best met by continuing an email correspondence?”
If it would be better met by a face-to-face meeting or a telephone call, is there a good reason why you are not dealing with it this way. For example, if your research collaborators live in a different time zone, or prefer asynchronous conversations for some reason, then you may need to do this by email even if it is not your ideal mode.
Put it in your to-do list as a task. Make notes about the sub-tasks necessary to reply appropriately. Schedule some time to work on it when you can give it the attention it deserves. Don’t just leave it in your inbox to be prompted the next time because when you are checking email is NOT the best time to do that task.
If this particular issue deserves a meeting (in person or on the phone), then one of your tasks is to set up the meeting. You can do that first, giving yourself enough time to do the work necessary to prepare for the meeting, or inviting appropriate additional people to the meeting.
Once you know what a reply involves, you may want to reply immediately with a brief acknowledgement:
“Thanks for your email. I want to give this proper attention. I will get back to you by [insert date].”
“Thanks for your email. I think this issue would be easier to resolve in person. Are you available [suggest 2 or 3 possible times] to discuss this?”
“Thanks for your email. I think this issue would be easier to resolve in person. It would be helpful to also have [named 3rd party] in the meeting [optional brief statement of what they would contribute]. Are you available [suggest 2 or 3 possible times] to discuss this?”
Tip: overestimate how long it will take so they can be surprised that you get back to them early rather than annoyed that you didn’t reply when you said you would.
On the same topic:
Email, just like normal mail but… (Dr. Jason Downs)
Email is still the best thing on the internet (Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic)
Email guidelines for the world (Alexandra Franzen)
Email Auto-Response (Martin Marks in The New Yorker; humorous)
Is the day or two email response norm serving us well? (Charlie Gilkey, Productive Flourishing)