Sunday 12 April 2015

Inbox stress – is there a way to avoid it?

That sinking feeling

There isn’t much about my job that I don’t like. There may be a little too much admin but even that is manageable if you just get on and do it and if you allow it its rightful position; it’s important and needs to be done effectively but is not as important as some other aspects of the job.
No, what I really dread is opening my inbox – especially after an absence or even on a Monday when they’ve continued to flow in over the weekend even though I don’t look at them. My refusal to look at them after about 5.00 p.m. Monday to Friday and at the weekend comes from my attempt to manage all the other work that is part of my role. I do work in the evening and at the weekend quite frequently, just not on email.  
Frequently in my inbox are:
  • Complaints
  • Problems I can’t solve quickly
  • Students wishing to make appointments
  • Questions that I can answer
  • Questions that I can’t answer and I don’t know who can.
  • More work
  • News - some interesting and useful, some less so.
  • Very occasionally, a nice one, saying thank you or bringing some really good news
Every day I spend a couple of hours sorting them all out. I’m nervous, with physical symptoms to prove that, every time I open my inbox and I want that to stop happening.
I am beginning to devise some strategies.

Face to face is better

I’m making a point of sweeping through the building each day as I pop up to the canteen for my Americano. If a colleague’s door is open and I need to communicate something, I’ll pop in, perhaps confirming what we discuss via an email later.
I’m making myself visible at lunch times in the canteen and encouraging both staff and students to approach me then if they have a concern or something they want to discuss. I’d rather have a working lunch than risk the misunderstandings that can arise on complicated issues in email.


Never put into an email what you wouldn’t dare say face to face. We must all own our feelings about matters. “I’m sorry you feel that way” is a valid response to anger expressed via email or any other way for that matter.  
I’m often irritated by being asked to perform extra tasks but as they are usually necessary, it’s better just to do them than spend the energy on flaming in an email. The discussion about workload needs to be had elsewhere. 

Email not instant messaging

It isn’t fair to email colleagues at 8.00 p.m. on a Sunday and expect them to act on it by 12.00 the next day. They may not have a chance to get to their email before then. Maybe texts are better for something genuinely urgent. 
We have a policy of answering student email within three working days.  We laugh. Most of the time we answer within 48 hours, often a lot less. But it can’t be instant. Often we have other things to do. For instance, this semester, I teach for six hours on a Thursday, starting at 9.00 a.m. meaning I have to leave the house by 7.30. Shortly, I’ll be involved in turning round 112 scripts within 15 working days. Each script takes between half an hour and an hour.
It cannot be instant and should not be relied upon as instant.
Very, very occasionally I’ll work on emails in the evening or the weekend. This is only when I’ve not managed to tackle them within the normal working day. I’m careful, though, about when I expect a response.


My priority is always my writing. Otherwise it might be a case of “those who can’t, teach”. As soon as that and any other “have to” actions – teaching, meetings etc. are completed I’ll take a big sweep through my inbox. I go through any emails that have arrived today and any that are left over from yesterday, deleting or filing any I can as I go. Then I’ll go through my Sent box, again deleting and filing as I go.
Next I’ll permanently delete. We have a constant battle keeping our mail accounts running as they often become full. We can archive, but that puts sensitive material on to a local drive. So we must “tidy up” regularly.
From time to time I’ll have a more in-depth tidy up.
Once I’ve opened email for the day, I’ll keep it open. I’ll have a good look at it after I complete each task I’m working on but tend at this stage only to answer urgent ones from students or ones that I can answer quickly. 


The joy of the delete button

I subscribe to several creative practitioner and research sites and get their daily / weekly or monthly email newsletter. I often don’t get time to read them and even less often get time to action them. However, I still want to keep them coming. Occasionally they work wonders. The delete button is extremely easy to use after all.
If they present something about which I’m unsure, I’ll just leave it there while I make my mind up. Later, when I do a more thorough tidy up, I’ll give myself the time to think about it.
It’s similar with internal news from the university. I do make every effort to read those. Then, file, delete or leave, as appropriate.  

What email is good for

It does have its uses and it’s difficult to remember what we used to do before. It can be used in a positive way. Consider the following:
  • Recording a meeting (I always send an email after a meeting with a student and later on I can do a search on his / her name if I need to later.)
  • Passing around documents
  • Making appointments
  • Letting colleagues and student know your news
  • Letting people know about events
  • Giving advance notice about lectures and seminars  
  • Reporting success and opportunities

Emailing via the VLE

There are two great advantages here.
  1. You can actually create an announcement on our Virtual Learning Environment, Blackboard, and have it emailed out to all users. This in itself has two advantages:
    1. Everyone involved in the unit sees what you are up to, not just the students.
    2. The announcement stays on the front page of the site and constantly reminds everyone
  2. If you need to send an email at a time when you don’t want to be sucked into it, you don’t have to open your email account.
You don’t always have to create an announcement. You can just email.

Paying it forward

Would it not be good if we all had pleasanter inboxes? Often, not just in the context of email, we dwell on the negative. What about if the first task we did every day when we tackle our email was to send out a positive message? Maybe also at the end of the day? Sandwich method again?

Not cracked yet

I do all of the above but still feel quite anxious about opening my inbox. I think this is a major source of stress now and not just within education. Comments and suggestions are most welcome.             

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