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Act, archive or delete: Email habits to keep you sane during a PhD

How many unread emails do you have right now? Single figures, double, or triple? Emails are supposed to make life easier; they are a way to communicate instantly across long distances. Instead we waste time and get distracted by a constant stream of incoming notifications. This is an especially difficult challenge during a PhD; you have enough to do trying to balance lab time, staying up-to-date on your field and writing papers.

I’m not going to deny that some emails are important, arranging meetings and organising essential lab equipment. But others are less important – marketing for useless products and updates about issues that don’t affect you. Sorting through your backlog of emails uses mental bandwidth that you’d rather not waste. Based on this some people like to use “hacks” to help them manage their emails. Personally, I prefer trial and error to figure out what works best for me. Everyone has their own system, some people are perfectionists who aim to keep their inbox at zero while others ignore it until it starts to overflow.

Over the last 3 years of my PhD I have tried different approaches to managing emails and below are some of habits that I have found most effective.

Act, archive, delete

When it comes to emails I have developed a ruthless mind-set. Originally I hung on to emails for months, always using the excuse “what if I need it at some point in the future.” But with this attitude I ended up with an inbox full of old emails that, every time I logged in, gave me anxiety. Eventually I realised this system was unsustainable.

Now I have a better system; once I have finished reading an email I ask two questions. Firstly, does this require me to do something? If the answer is yes I move it to a folder called “action.” If the answer is no, then I ask do I need to keep this for future reference? If the answer is yes, then I archive it. If the answer is no then I delete it. Obviously this approach sounds brutal and there are exceptions, but 90% of my emails fall into one of those categories.

So next time you finish with an email just think: Act, archive or delete.   

Avoid procrastination

Some people like to use emails as a way to procrastinate and avoid work. I am the opposite – for the first year of my PhD I procrastinated my emails. I would look at my inbox and see 30 unread messages and my response was: I’ll do it eventually. Then after a few days that unread number would creep up into the hundreds. Eventually I would have to face reality and accept that I could only procrastinate for so long. Then I would spend far too long not only reading the emails but trying to decide which were important and which were urgent. Then, anything urgent I would try and do while what was actually important was forgotten about.

Don’t fall into this trap; it just ends up creating unneeded stress and anxiety.

Schedule time

There is one habit that has helped me overcome my procrastination problem and improve my work life balance. That habit is having dedicated time set aside each day for reading and responding to emails. Previously I would check my emails throughout the day when I had a spare five minutes; in a queue or waiting for the kettle to boil. This approach was terrible for my mental health.

Instead I have set up a recurring appointment in my calendar at 3 o’clock every afternoon titled “emails.” At that time every day I spend 30 to 40 minutes reading emails and doing any actions that are associated with them. Some days I can’t make that slot, because of experiments or meetings, but I try my best to stick to it.

This acts as an anchor and allows me to compartmentalise my work (plus I usually reward myself once I’m done with a coffee break and a snack).

Send fewer, write less 

Some of the best email management advice I ever read was: if you want to receive fewer emails then send fewer of them. It sounds obvious but it’s harder than you would think to implement, but it’s well worth the effort. Before even start writing an email ask – do I need to send this person an email? Could you give the person a call, or is there some other way you can get what you need? Maybe 5 minutes of googling or calling someone in your research group will get you a faster answer than waiting for someone to respond to your email.

The second piece of advice when sending emails is this: if you have to send an email, keep it short. We all hate getting emails that are two pages long with the most important information hidden four paragraphs deep.

A common approach is the 5 sentence rule; if you can’t write it in 5 sentences then maybe you need to call the person. I use this method to keep my emails brief and to the point. Sending short emails has two advantages; the first is that you spend less time writing emails. The second is that people will follow your lead and keep their responses short. This is particularly useful when you work with people who get off track easily and forget to answer the question that you asked.  

All of these suggestions are just that – suggestions. They aren’t a How To Guide. They are just some of the habits that I have adopted during my PhD that have helped me avoid stress and stay on top of emails.

Be flexible and try to find a method that suits you. And importantly don’t be afraid to experiment till you find what works – after all, that’s what scientists do. 

Featured image is under Pexels License and free to use.

About the Author
  • Steven Gibney 0000-0002-3309-1522

    Steve is currently a member of the EPSRC CDT in Advanced Therapeutics and Nanomedicines at the University of Nottingham. He uses bioelectronics to design new treatments and diagnostic devices. When he's away from the lab he can usually be found lost in the woods or up a mountain. Twitter: @Steve_Gibney

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