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Advice & News

March 21, 2019

Work Email Is a Task That Needs to be Tamed, Not Ignored


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Very few of the job descriptions on HigherEdJobs mention "checking email," yet knowledge workers spend nearly a third of their time reading and answering emails.

According to a McKinsey Global Institute report, interaction workers -- which are high-skill knowledge workers that include most higher education professionals and their managers -- spend 28 percent of their time on email. They use another 33 percent of their time either gathering information or collaborating internally, leaving 39 percent for role-specific tasks.

As someone whose role is to write about an institution, I do my share of gathering information and emailing executives, deans, faculty, and staff so that I can share details about their programs, research, and accomplishments. While every job has some degree of administrative work, I've found people fall into what Elizabeth Emens calls "admin personalities." Her book "Life Admin" is more about toiling with the life side of the work/life balance, but a professor's approach (or reproach) to email is similar to parents needing to maintain a household when they should be spending time with their kids.

The Super Doer responds to my emails immediately, as if taking pleasuring in admin work, connectedness, having a tidy inbox, and that dopamine hit that comes with every email notification.

The Reluctant Doer experiences admin work as an obstacle and will respond to my email within a day or two when they finally have time to get caught up, as if managing email is like flossing or eating their vegetables.

The Admin Avoider knows their unanswered emails are a problem but they don't want or know how to deal with it. They'll respond to my email after a week or two, which usually begins with an apology.

The Admin Denier never replies to my email and doesn't waste their time with what they consider unimportant things -- or they'll just say they somehow never received it, as if lost in the ether, which is accurate if they don't check their email.

"Most of us are not simply one type or another," wrote Emens, who is a Columbia University law professor. "These admin personalities are archetypes, caricatures, whereas people are complex creatures whose realities partake of diverse feelings and life strategies."

Before discussing an email strategy, let's address one well-intentioned, yet radical idea for reducing scholars' hours spent on email. Cal Newport, an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, wrote in his Chronicle of Higher Education essay, "Is Email Making Professors Stupid?," that institutions should invest in more administrative support. Although not suggesting a one-to-one ratio of professors to administrative assistants, Newport's proposal may seem impractical, especially with the ubiquity of email and how colleagues and students rely on email for its transactional recordkeeping.

"The same advances in technology that have led us to disastrously shift the burden of administrative work onto frontline employees has also greatly increased the efficiency with which support staff can operate -- enabling a smaller pool of assistants to help many professors," Newport wrote. "In short, we're already paying a price for the proliferation of ceaseless communication and administrative busywork. The question is whether we're finally ready to admit it and have an honest discussion about whether it's worth it."

Just as a Super Doer is always "on top of things," professors should be "on the bottom of things," Newport argued, for them to be effective in their role. But most higher education professionals, even the monastically-aspiring professoriate, tend to fall in the middle of things, because, as Emens would say, we're nonbinary creatures who are as complex as our realities.

For some, throwing in an intermediary wouldn't solve their email problem but make it worse, adding another variable to encode messages. Instead, we can develop these strategies to become more efficient email users:

  • Make email a visible task. Emens refers to admin work as invisible labor because it's not recognized as work tasks but something people do compulsively on devices while multitasking. Try giving this task a name, that is, build it into your to-do list or time on your calendar.
  • Go deep in your actual work. The opposite of admin tasks is what Newport calls "Deep Work," which, in addition to the title of his 2016 book, is a practice he calls "professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit." Citing work from the similar concept of "deliberate practice," identified and researched by Anders Ericsson in 1993, people are only capable of four hours of such activity a day before experiencing diminishing rewards. So "shallow work," such as checking email, is not a problem unless it "begins to crowd out your bounded deep efforts of the day," Newport wrote.
  • No peeking, or else no peaking. However you conduct your deep work, whether you work continuously for an hour or two or you prescribe to the short, 25-minute bursts like the Pomodoro Technique, don't check email during your breaks. You might justify that this is better than leaving your email window open or your notifications on continuously. But that quick check, according to Newport, introduces a new target for your attention and creates an "attention residue," a deleterious effect from task switching studied by Sophie Leroy, which will diminishes your peak performance when you return to a state of deep work.
  • Be specific to close loops. Make your outgoing emails easier for you and the recipient to close the loop. Instead of writing emails that include questions like "Thoughts?" or "Are you available?," be more specific with your request. Write something like, "Can I stop by to discuss X in the last 15 minutes of your office hours on Thursday?," or "Please let me know a specific day, time, and number to you call before Friday." Also, consider investing in an automated scheduler like Calendly to cut down on back-and-forth emails.
  • Use NNTR. There's not much you can do about the dreaded reply-all emails and "ok, thanks" emails that clutter your inbox, but Emens ends some of her emails with NNTR, short for "no need to reply." LMK when this catches on, because IMO many people either aren't familiar with this or will still insist on having the last word.
  • Or, really, just don't reply. According to Newport's rules for Professional Email Sorting, don't reply to an email if the following applies: 1.) it's ambiguous or makes it hard for you to generate a reasonable response, 2.) it's not a question or proposal that interests you, or 3.) nothing really good would happen if you did respond and nothing really bad would happen if you didn't. At the risk of becoming known as an Admin Denier, not replying to emails would be a last-ditch effort if email is still preventing you from doing the work you were hired to do.
All of this is not to say that email is the bogeyman in your closet that will steal all your precious time at work, but if you shine a light on the closet and keep it organized, email can be like a closet: an effective way to keep your house in order. And then you will be able to sleep better at night.