An Email Pandemic

Dear Ask the Chair,
I can’t deal with all this email! It was bad enough when we were working on campus, but now we’re working remotely my email has increased exponentially. All the questions I would have answered when someone would have just stopped by my office, or made a quick phone call are now emails. I could spend the whole day on email alone! This is especially hard since I’m trying to finish a research project: difficult enough during any summer, but this one is making it all but impossible. Help!—Swamped by Email

Dear Swamped,

You are not alone.  I’ve heard from many chairs about this problem, and all of them report having to deal with so many more emails than they have in the past. In fact, this was a major topic of conversation in Robyn Warhol’s “Faculty Anxiety and Remote Leadership” workshop at the recent MAPS Institute co-sponsored by ADE-ADFL online through the month of June.

Chairs feel strongly about the onslaught of email — one participant in the MAPS seminars called it “a blight upon our land”! While I might not go that far, depending on the day, it certainly can feel like a harsh tyrant, demanding more and more of our time, especially now as everything is online. And it’s hard to judge tone on email — messages can sound angrier or more terse than the sender intended, or the sender might be more irascible on email than in real life. I can’t claim to have mastered the email blight, but I do have some suggestions.

1. Set clear boundaries. Some chairs will not answer email on weekends or outside of the workday (however you might define that). When the day is over they set up a bounce back message that lets the sender know that their email will be answered after 9am the next day or on Monday.

2. You are not Google. Nor are you the department or college Web site. If someone is looking for information that is easily found elsewhere, just send a short message referring them to the resource they need. You can also have stock answers for various kinds of questions that you don’t need to reply to in detail.

3. Set aside specific times for your own work, whatever that might be. Many people like the Pomodoro technique in which you make a list of things to do, set a timer for a given amount of time (typically 25 minutes) and do those things until the timer goes off. When they’re completed, check them off the list. This works beautifully for research and writing as well as administrative tasks — one colleague has a writing circle that meets twice a week for Pomodoro sessions, which has then spurred her to focus on her own research more during the rest of the week.

4. Respond to content, not tone. Even if the person is actually being rude. In fact, especially if the person is being rude. One way to defuse your own feelings is to start your message with “Thank you for your email.” You might not feel grateful, but it does set the tone for what you’re about to say. As with all email, don’t respond until whatever irritation or anger you’re feeling has had some time to subside. If you’re not sure that you’re able to do that, first send the email to a trusted colleague and get some feedback.

5. WALK AWAY FROM THE COMPUTER. Take an hour to do something you enjoy: cook, play an instrument, go for a walk, bike ride, or run, read a book, watch some tv. Nothing at work is so urgent that it can’t wait an hour.

Good luck! And for those who have managed to master the onslaught of email, please share your tips in the comments.

—The Chair