# Taming the E-Mail Avalanche

## Tags: musings

Published on
« Previous post: A Blast from the Past — Next post: Publication Lists with BibLaTeX »

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:

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:

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 Mail (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:

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. ↩︎