Friday, March 7, 2014

Let others organize your e-mail

One of the biggest management issues people have with e-mail is that so much different stuff comes through your e-mail box that it’s hard to keep track of. For instance, research e-mail, teaching e-mail and committee e-mail all come into the same inbox, waiting for me to sort it all out. I could sort it all into mailboxes/labels, but honestly, it’s too much work, so I rely on search. But search is only so good–it’s not perfect, and sometimes there are times when I need to find *all* responses to a particular e-mail from a variety of people, and it’s not okay to miss one of them. It’s tricky because sometimes the respondents will change the subject line or not include the original message in their reply, which means stuff can slip through the search engine. What to do?

Recently, it occurred to me: why not let people who e-mail me do the sorting? There are a couple ways of doing this, and I’ve implemented one and am considering implementing the other:
  1. Just make a new e-mail address. This term, I made myself a specific e-mail address just for teaching. I instructed my students to just use this e-mail address for contacting me. This serves two purposes: first, it makes it much easier to sort for these messages so that I can find *all* teaching associated e-mails without having to do any filing or searching. Second, it makes me much less likely to miss some teaching-related e-mail tangled in their with the rest of my e-mail, making me more responsive. So far, so good–I think it’s a clear win here. But I don’t think this strategy can work except for cases where you have a very clear delineation of communication. Some people have a “important” e-mail vs. a “everyone else” e-mail. But any time there’s a blurry line, there will be bleed through, and over time it just devolves into a mess. For teaching, though, this works well.
  2. Use the trick. I just learned recently about a cool Gmail feature, which is that if your Gmail address is, then if “string" is any string, will also come to your Gmail inbox, but the “To” field will be Basically, this allows senders to add tags to the e-mails they are sending you! The problem, of course, is that they have to know about your tags ahead of time, and actually be conscientious enough to stick to it (which of course I wouldn’t do). But there is a way to encourage this: use the “Reply To” field. Let’s say I’m asking for faculty feedback on some departmental matter. Then I can send out the e-mail with in Reply To and hopefully all the responses will be all nicely tagged. I haven’t tried this yet, but let me tell you, I really wish I had thought of this about 2 months ago…
Anybody else have other tricks for how to manage e-mail?

1 comment:

  1. I got to these productivity tips way too late.

    I forward everything to Gmail and use filters to label the incoming mail. Every supervised student gets their own label. Every committee gets one. Every grant gets one. Etc. These are automatically added to each incoming email according to simple defined rules. There may be a few false positives (student email to general mailing list gets tagged), but these do not pose real difficulties. In the end, nearly all email I get is pre-tagged, and I can pull up everything about a project/student/grant with two clicks. Emails not tagged are usually spammy (no I do not want to contribute a paper to your new pay-to-publish journal), or a great opportunity (for which there is a manual label to apply).

    When I read the emails, I pretty much classify them according to your ABCD (A = star, B = todo label, C,D either quick response or ignore when possible). None of this helps really with the volume, or the length of the todo list, but at least it's relatively organized.