Blog post – How do you keep up with emails?

Do you answer emails as they come in – always connected? Do you schedule time in your calendar for emails? Perhaps you use some smart in-box algorithms to sort emails into designated folders that keep only the important emails in your inbox?

Because I can no longer keep up with emails in my working hours, I am curious about how my UQ colleagues manage their inboxes. So, I started asking people. I get both the ‘you’re not alone’ comfort when others share similar struggles and a range of helpful, practical strategies to try out. Yet I still feel the pressure to be connected to emails 24/7.

I don’t hate email.

I appreciate email as a communication tool that is dependent on how people use it. Lately, I have come to the conclusion that I am not using email effectively. While I seek out tips and strategies on managing emails because I find them helpful, I recently read a book that reframed my thinking about why I am struggling with email. It is more than ‘I am bad at email’, it is that I want more time to think and produce high-quality work in both my teaching and research. My email habits are working against me and the pressure I place on myself to respond to emails 24/7 is unproductive. 

Talking with other UQ female academic leaders recently affirmed I am not alone in my struggle. Talking with them inspired this piece to reach out more broadly to the UQ teaching community, where managing emails from students can feel like a 24/7 job.

How often do you find yourself in the ‘how many emails I get  so busy’ conversation? 

Of course, this could be playing into the (misguided) notion of ‘busy and stressed’ as a proxy for productivity and success – lots of emails must mean I am in demand, right? (Dr Carol Newall from Macquarie troubles this thinking). Nonetheless, the teaching staff at UQ are busy with lots on our plate with new strategies and lots of change happening in the education space. Like our research-focused colleagues, learning and teaching work requires time to think – what Professor Cal Newport from Georgetown University in the USA calls deep work

Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.

More than keeping us busy, email is driving us to distraction, he argues, which diminishes our capacity for deep work. Thinking about my email habits from the perspective of inhibiting my capacity to engage in deep work resonated with me. I do need focused time to plan my teaching, to think through the implications of changing my assessment, and to map out a major evaluation report of the UQ Student Strategy. I have not even mentioned the deep work required for the high-quality research that keeps UQ moving up the international rankings (and enables me to satisfy the requirements of my role).  

Answering emails every few hours diminishes the quality of my work.

Reframing my email habits in relation to deep work, I feel less like I am whining from a privileged position or playing into the cult of busy status game. I am reclaiming what matters at UQ – the pursuit of excellence. Excellence expected in both research and teaching. That is why I am now intentional about when I open my email, what emails I respond to, and how I respond. I no longer have my email open all day or connected to my mobile device. Importantly, I think twice before I send an email to anyone. Doing so has opened up more time for the deep work I both enjoy and need to do.  

For the UQ teaching community, understanding how we manage email effectively by reducing the distraction of it while effectively harnessing it as a communication tool matters. 

How do you manage your emails? Let’s learn together.

Last updated:
2 August 2019