Combining productive work lives and balanced personal lives
As if professors didn’t already have enough stress on them with the tasks they have always done, such as class preparation, grading, advising, research, and committee work, now we’ve added managing our electronic communication systems to the list. What looked like a way to save time hand typing letters on letterhead has become more an annoyance than a labor saver. Faculty tell me they can spend two to three hours a day answering student inquiries about assignments and colleague banter related to committee work. One of my coaching clients reported that a typical day for her involves receiving over 200 emails a day. Since how to handle email has became one of the most frequently asked questions in my Professor Destressor workshops, I have been collecting tips from effective professors and business people for lowering this stressor and getting back control of your time and your life.
Design and Use Systems
You already know what doesn’t work: just sitting at your screen randomly responding to incoming email while you grumble about the important work you have not doing. Here are some ways that productive faculty use to manage their email.
- Set up folders and filters. Sixty percent of the faculty
members in my time management workshops do not know how to set up
filters but this one step will help you to take back significant
control of your work day. Folders and filters allow you to choose
when to attend to groups of emails on related projects and
commitments. All email systems have some way of filtering emails
into different folders. Just like your computer already has
folders for “sent” and “trash” and “inbox” under your user name,
you can name and set up your own additional folders.
The method is usually found in a pull down menu with choices that will be self-explanatory but here are the basics. To set up folders, imagine a tree with a trunk and then branches and then smaller branches. The trunk is the first division, often your user name. It may appear on the left of your email screen. The specific folders and subfolders represent the divisions and subdivisions. For example, I manage my email with Netscape. In my system I click on my user name (the tree trunk) and then go up to “File” at the very top of the screen where I click until “New” appears. As I move the cursor over to “New” more choices appear and I let the cursor rest on “Folder.” A dialogue box appears and I fill in the name I want and click “Ok.” The dialogue box closes and a new folder appears as a branch of the tree trunk. In some systems it appears in alphabetical order while in others systems it appears in chronological order according to creation date. You can create folders and subfolders related to your areas of work-life balance. Here are some common ones:
- Title of each course you teach;
- Title of each committee on which you serve;
- Research areas on which you collect information and correspondence;
- Action to be taken;
- Decisions to be made;
- Children’s activities with subfolders for soccer, scouts, religious education, etc.;
- Personal folders for financial, travel, medical, etc.
There are two ways to use these folders. The first is to file individual emails into the categories to either remind you (such as in “Action” or “Travel”) of action steps related to your goals and major areas of work-life balance. You can click and drag emails into these categories. Then you decide when in your busy work week you wish to manage the items in each category. Periodically, you will skim a category, deleting many items and acting on the most important. You can categorize incoming emails based on priority and move as soon as you read or even move without reading until you re ready. Other examples of folders used by productive professionals include: “immediate action,” “waiting on response,” “invoices and receipts,” “archive for a year then clean out.”
The other use of the folders is to set up filters so that items go directly to your folders bypassing your inbox. With this method, you control when to open incoming emails by setting an appointment with yourself for class preparation, committee work, children’s activities, etc. The filter dialogue box usually is a pull down in your email bar often under “Preferences.” You can filter by the sender, the subject, or words in the email. For example, when I teach Non-profit Leadership and Management 510, I ask my students to put the course title NP 510 in the subject title. My filter sends all correspondence from the class members to that folder. I can open it once a day or every three days to see what the students are writing about. Students in that class submit all written assignments due to me by a date and time. The assignments go directly into the course folder. I can grade as the assignments come in or grade all at once after the assignment deadline has passed. If you want to pace your grading you might reward the early submissions by bonus points or a chance to resubmit or some method consistent with your pedagogical goals. The time stamp will let you know when the email assignments came in.
Just like folders and filters can help you manage your course work, they can also help you manage your administrative and committee work. Committee members can choose a “Subject” for their emails such as “Dean search” and the messages will land in the “Dean search” box. You can decide when you are going to work on that committee work instead of being interrupted by banter all day long. By the time you get the folder open the banter might have resolved itself without you needing to participate and then you can respond to the essential tasks of the committee. On the other hand, if you want to be part of the banter you can watch the flag on that folder which will light up to let you know of new unread mail as it comes in.
- Use electronic course management systems. Many colleges are
using commercial products such as Blackboard for managing
courses electronically; some schools have their own system
designed by their IT people. If you have not used these
systems, they can cut down on your email from students
tremendously. They are not just useful for on-line courses but
for your in-person classes as well. If you feel intimidated by
these forums, sign up for training at your college on how to
set up your course website. Your students are used to being part
of on-line communities such as Face Book and My Space and are
expecting their savvy professors to keep up with educational
Here are some things on-line course management tools can do for you and your students.
- Post your course materials such as the syllabus, your bios,
links to readings, practice quizzes, etc. No more, “my dog ate
my syllabus so I didn’t know when the test was.”
- Post answers to frequently asked questions that have come in
by email. If several students are asking the same question, you
do not have to send them personal answers. You can send the
whole bunch the same answer (be sure to address them BCC, Blind
Carbon Copied, to preserve their privacy) and then post the
question and answer on the course website. When additional
emails come in with the same question, you refer them to the
link to the web answer. Too many questions on the same topic
may mean you failed to make your expectations clear on the
syllabus or assignment handout. The next time you teach the
class, use the frequently answered questions to revise your
syllabus with more explicit instructions and suggestions about
- Set up groups for the students to meet on projects, chat
about materials, and form work groups. You can monitor the
dialogue and offer guidance when appropriate.
- Use these forums for grade spreadsheets and attendance. The students can access their own grades and attendance records without seeing other students’ grades.
- Post your course materials such as the syllabus, your bios, links to readings, practice quizzes, etc. No more, “my dog ate my syllabus so I didn’t know when the test was.”
Electronic systems provide ways for you to work with colleagues on and off campus. Committee members can use a networked schedule within their university system or an outside system such Yahoo and Google calendars to find their next meeting time. The members plug in their availability and the software does the merging work.
You and your coauthors can send papers with original text and comments in different colors for each author. Some systems even let you work simultaneously on the paper in real time as though you are all sitting in one room making suggestions.
Don’t worry that these systems will make all of us moles working in our little holes and never seeing the light of day. The trend is for organizations to use these systems to replace many unnecessary meetings with a few key meetings designed for sharing, intellectual stimulation, fun, and the short of networking that can’t be replaced by electronic media.
To handle email effectively, imitate the work habits of successful professors who do the following:
- Check email only as often as your job requires. For example,
if you were a health insurance case manager approving brain
surgery on accident victims you would need to keep your email
bell on and answer quickly; however, as a professor, checking
email once or twice a day will be sufficient to responsibly
meet your work obligations. Turn your mail bell off so that
it does not distract you from other tasks at hand.
- Delay checking your email until you have completed some
subgoals on your high priority projects.
- Avoid getting addicted to email like the professor who
stops to check her email on the way back from the bathroom
in the middle of the night.
- Skip the jokes and the Mother’s Day inspirational prayers
unless you are employed by Jay Leno or Hallmark.
- Announce electronic office hours when you promise to answer
quickly those emails that come in during that window. All
other emails are triaged depending on the priority of the
outcome of the interaction related to your goals.
And these tips when you are the initiator of the email:
- Start each dialogue on a separate topic with a new subject
so that discussion about the research paper is not buried
below a flurry of emails with the subject, “just saying hi.”
- Write succinctly when sending mail and ask, “Is this note
necessary to the life of me or my recipient?”
- Pause when hitting reply instead of responding in anger to
an email before having time to decide if the retort will
help or hurt the situation. Park it in the “draft” folder
and reread 24 hours later to see if you like the tone and
- Pick up the phone if you are trying to find a meeting
date with one person and email doesn’t resolve it in one
You only have 168 hours a week. How many of those hours do you want to allocate to email? Some additional tips follow:
- Don’t open links when the person says, “Thought you
might find this interesting.” Oh, really? How interesting?
What is it about? Does it tell me how to save money or get
a better job or how to find a great husband or turn the
husband I already have into a great husband? If the writer
doesn’t point out the relevance of the link to your life,
delete the email.
- Reply in short-handed telegraphic speech. Instead of,
“So glad you can meet at 1. That time would be great for
me,” type “Confirm 1:00pm the 18th.” When responding to a
note, forego the formal salutations and signatures
required in written correspondence. Instead, dive into
your response and have an electronic signature line that
reminds the reader who you are.
- Instead of writing a long reply, pick up the phone and
tape a long reply into the person’s voice mail at a time
when the person is in class and won’t answer the phone.
You will save writing time and save them reading time.
- Keep a limit on how many exchanges you initiate. Do they
really want this note?
- Keep a limit on the number of people you CC or BCC on your
notes unless you need a legal electronic paper trail. Do
all of these people want this note?
- Ask your relatives to post family pictures on one of the
commercial sites so that you can peruse at your leisure.
Manage your electronic systems so you have more time for what matters to you such as your research, kids, spouse, or hobbies.
© Copyright 2008 Susan Robison. All rights reserved. The above material is copyrighted but you may retransmit or distribute it to whomever you wish as long as not a single word is changed, added or deleted, including the contact information.
CONTACT INFORMATION: Susan Robison, PhD.; 3275 Font Hill Drive; Ellicott City, MD 21042 Voice: 410-465-5892; E-mail: Susan@ProfessorDestressor.com Website: www.ProfessorDestressor.com