How to Control Your Email (So It Doesn’t Control You)

7th June 1984 and a young television presenter called Jane Ashton is fronting a Thames TV programme called Database. As the introductory synth fades out, Ashton gestures towards a screen besides her onto which the Green family, a husband and wife, appear . ‘We’ll be linking from the Database studio to their home’, she promises, as the cameras cut to Pat and Julian Green in the upstairs front room of a suburban semi. They appear refreshingly uncomfortable with the televisual media.

‘Hello Jane’, they say not quite in unison.

‘Hi Julian. I see you have your computer linked to the telephone line. Can you tell us how you did that?’

‘Yes, well, it’s very simple really’, he says, elbowing his wife out of the way to show us the wires he’d plugged and unplugged from various boxes. ‘I can then switch on the modem, and we’re ready to go’.

Of course, he isn’t ready to go. Pat shrinks further away from the camera as her husband types his password (which the camera clearly reveals is ‘1234’) and dials numbers one-by-one into a rotary phone. ‘Um… Extremely simple’, he says. After more fiddling, Pat takes over to explain how she uses the computer to keep track of what she has in the freezer and to show us an electronic prescription from her pharmacist. (Names and phone numbers not redacted.)

That’s the end of segment 1, but we return to the pair later for the programme’s climax: Pat typing out an email while on air. Then, just moments later, a dot matrix printer in the studio magically spits out the following: ‘Best wishes to all the Database team. Electronically yours, the Green Family.’

Managing Emails

Almost 40 years after Pat and Julian hooked their computer up to their phone, the magic of an email exchange has entirely evaporated (along with the thrill of using a computer to keep track of what’s in your freezer). Like Dionysus granting Midas’s wish that everything he touched would turn to gold, the reality of easy connectivity and instantaneous correspondence became more a curse than a blessing. In this blog, we’ll look at a few steps you can take to manage your emails (though we can’t promise you’ll find as much fulfilment in them as Pat and Julian Green once did).

Schedule email time. We don’t need to describe the drain on resources that emails have become. They clearly limit our productivity, apparently occupying nearly a quarter of our work hours. Disconnecting from email for most of the working day can really help manage both your inbox and anxiety. Scheduling a specific time to deal with your inbox – perhaps first thing in the morning or just before you log off for the day – can be freeing.

Some people find it a good end-of-week task to empty their inboxes entirely. Although it’s preferable to disconnect entirely while you work, sometimes this isn’t possible. Perhaps we’re awaiting important emails, or maybe you’re working through those horrid, nervous days when grant application results are due to be released. In such cases, you might set filters to catch messages you don’t want to appear as notifications. Let only the most important kinds of messages intrude upon your attention.

Empty your inbox. In academia particularly, there are plenty of opportunities to peek at a colleague’s computer. Whether looking over their shoulder while co-writing an article or casually glancing at their desktop projected in a conference hall, it’s surprisingly common to see an email icon with a big, red notification symbol reading something like ‘3564 new messages’. It can feel oppressive to see large numbers of unread emails – and they’re probably only newsletters and subscriptions you’ll never find time to open.

It’s possible to use folders, tags, or other kinds of dividers to organise emails. But when you’re receiving 80+ emails per day, organisation becomes an oppressive task in itself. Far better, perhaps, is to delete emails or squirrel them away into an ‘archive’ folder. This way, you won’t miss important messages and that annoying red notification disappears. You could also limit the number of emails coming into your inbox in the first place by unsubscribing from mailing lists and newsletters that you’ll never really get around to reading.

Scheduled emails. We all, from time to time, end up writing emails in the middle of the night, at weekends, or at other times we shouldn’t. For some, this is a way of life. But emailing at all hours makes a mockery of the boundary between work and life. We don’t need to reproach ourselves for doing the necessary work whenever it suits us, but we shouldn’t encourage others to contact us outside our usual working hours. If you’re the kind of person to write emails ‘out of hours’ (or out of most people’s hours), a scheduling function, such as the one on Outlook, can both stop you intruding on others’ non-working lives, and set boundaries for your own work-life balance.

Out of Office

Annual leave. Parental leave. Holiday mode. It’s a wonderful feeling to apply an out-of-office message, and an excellent way to officially disconnect from correspondence and work in general. Or just give yourself permission to stop the correspondence so that you can do deeper and more concentrated work, like writing a book. What should you put in an out-of-office message? There are things like the dates you’ll be away or won’t be responding to messages, alternative contact details for emergencies, or other points of contact in your organisation, and a sign-off. This would give you an entirely acceptable, functional message – sorry I’m not around, but if you need to talk to someone about the Big Important Project, you can email Jackie. All the best.

A few years ago, several academics applied out-of-office messages saying that they would simply delete all emails upon their return. ‘So, if your message is important, please re-send it when I return’. It was fairly common for a while, but it seems to have all but disappeared. More common now are the boilerplate jokes and banalities that are calculated not to offend, while offering at least the suggestion of a personality: ‘The bad news is that I’m out of office. The good news is that I’m out of office’. That kind of thing. Some people use honesty as a comic device:

I know I’m supposed to say that I’ll have limited access to email and won’t be able to respond until I return, but that’s not true. My iPhone will be with me and I can respond if I need to. And I recognise that I’ll probably need to interrupt my vacation from time to time to deal with something urgent.

That said, I promised my wife that I am going to try to disconnect, get away and enjoy our vacation as much as possible. So, I’m going to experiment with something new. I’m going to leave the decision in your hands.

An academic at a UK university created a template message she encouraged all her colleagues to use. It was a particularly effective use for Out of Office: the basics were given – thanking the correspondent for their email, giving dates of annual leave, giving an emergency contact for students, and being clear that lecturers won’t be checking emails during the holidays. In this way, the template managed student expectations (most students understand that lecturers need to take breaks, but we all know students who expect lecturers to read and offer feedback on their fourth essay drafts from the beach or campsite). The message went on to direct students to other resources – to the library, to academic support, to the 24-hour services that would still be open and available over the holidays. And, recognising that holiday times are difficult for some people, the message linked to mental health and wellbeing services, national helplines, the Samaritans. It wasn’t an email to merely manage expectations, but to recognise that when people go on holiday, support is effectively withdrawn from students and colleagues who might be vulnerable. By providing alternative points of contact and directions to support services, colleagues at the university could also feel safe in switching off, supported by their university in taking a well-earned break, and confident that any emergencies have been triaged.