Taming the E-Mail Avalanche

Tags: musings

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E-mails are known to be boon and bane in almost any job. As I move forward1 in the academic hierarchy, I am spending an increasing amount of time in my mail client. Here, I want to quickly discuss how to stay on top of this avalanche—while also showing some statistics of my personal e-mail experience.

The numbers

First, let us take a look at the bare numbers. How much mail is there? Here is a plot of my daily e-mail volume, starting from 2018, until the beginning of this week:

Incoming e-mails per day

Some nice patterns here: as I was entrusted with increasing responsibilities, my volume of mails also grew, and I had to be aware of more projects, The ‘uptick’ in Winter 2020 is a consequence of our successful Topological Data Analysis and Beyond workshop at NeurIPS 2020. The general increase in volume is more easily seen when switching to a per-month visualisation, though:

Incoming e-mails per month

This plot is probably emblematic of what supervisors, managers, and everyone else working in a larger team has to deal with on a daily basis. During my Ph.D., e-mail was easily handled because I almost never received anything that required a reply. Now, things are a little bit different—I had to adjust my strategies!

Taking charge

I nowadays approach incoming e-mails with a more deliberate strategy in mind. As a simple person, this strategy is very simple: a priori, everything in my inbox is a task: either answer it, file it, or ignore it. I do not sort e-mail—I have three folders: inbox, sent, and archive. Having addressed the task in the e-mail, it goes into the archive. I do not bother with assigning labels, subfolders, or anything else to my e-mail—in fact, I exclusively rely on my e-mail client having a good search engine. I am not at the level of e-mail yet where I would require something like notmuchmail; so far, Apple MailĀ (on my work laptop) and NeoMutt are quite up to the task.

Inbox zero?

My ultimate goal is to reach ‘inbox zero’, that mystical place where all tasks set out by others are done away with, but I also realised that this does not work everyday—being responsive to things that require an immediate response is all well and good, but I have other responsibilities2. I therefore did what any sane person would do and just restricted my use of the e-mail client. I purposefully disabled all notifications and sounds as they might break my concentration, and I just started looking at e-mails at certain hours of the day.

Specifically, if I have days that are full of a lot of meetings, I might answer e-mails between two meetings, because a little bit of downtime is often insufficient to start more complicated tasks. I also look at e-mails before starting other work, and in other ‘slumps’ of the workday, such as after lunch or when I do not feel capable of working for prolonged periods on complex tasks.

I am following this strategy for a few months now, but some pattern emerges when breaking down my e-mail responses per hour:

Outgoing e-mails per hour

You can see the nice valley in the morning, which is my most productive working time—so I do not want to use it for answering e-mails. There are also the usual after-work e-mail responses that indicate a less-than-stellar work-life balance3, but sometimes, I just want to send out an e-mail so that I can archive a task in my mind. All in all, this is working pretty well for me, but I have to force myself at certain times to leave the client closed for a while. Moreover, since many of us are working from home now, there is no ‘downtime’ waiting for something else to happen, which I might otherwise use to send some quick replies. This makes it even more important to be strategy and somewhat parsimonious with my time.

I am a bad correspondent

All of this has one bad consequence, though: like a very bad copy of the inimitable Neal Stephenson, I, too, am a bad correspondent, at least sometimes. If an e-mail is not time-critical, I might delay a response.

This is not because I do not value getting or reading an e-mail! Rather, I often have immediate responsibilities, such as mentoring, supervision, or just finishing up a project for a conference deadline. I definitely read all the e-mails that I receive, I just might consider not answering them right away. If I do not reply sufficiently fast, please just give me a ping. I do not mind!

I hope that you can put some of these tips to good use such that your e-mail client may never cause you any anguish again! Until next time—I am off to send some e-mails now.

  1. Or so I hope! ↩︎

  2. They call it ‘publish or perish’ not ‘respond to e-mail or perish’. ↩︎

  3. Or at the very least, a poor work-mail balance. ↩︎