Sunday, November 16, 2014

A week in my e-mail life

[Follow up post here: Verdict on a (mostly) Bacn-free week of e-mail: totally awesome!]

[Note: This is a longish post, so here’s an “abstract” that gets across the main points: Academics get a lot of e-mail. I decided to catalog my e-mails for the week to see if I could identify any patterns. I found that a large amount of my e-mail was “Bacn”, meaning e-mails that I am in some way supposed to get, but are typically not very important, like seminar announcements, etc. A lot of the more research-oriented e-mail was related to logistics, like shipping, etc. As for what to do about it, I think the number one thing is to pre-filter a bunch of the Bacn, which typically just comes from a relatively limited number of easily identified people and only very very rarely requires any sort of immediate action. This will help make it easier to process it in batch mode, which is another area where I could really improve how I handle e-mail, rather than replying in a more "real time" fashion. And I will try to be more decisive in handling e-mail. An update on how all this worked next week.]

As is the case for most academics these days, I get a lot of e-mail. And as is the case for most academics, I love to complain about how much time it takes up. I was thinking about this recently when I came across the line “E-mail is everyone else’s to do list for you.” Which I thought was an interesting way of thinking about it. I mean, just because someone has my e-mail address doesn’t necessarily give them the right to command my attention, right? But then I thought a bit more, and I wondered if my attention really is being dragged unnecessarily in unwanted directions, or is it primarily spent on things that I want to pay attention to. Are there ways that I can make myself more efficient?

So I decided to catalog all the e-mail I got in the last week. First, a couple notes on methodology. I basically just looked through my e-mail for the past week and tried not to delete anything (which I normally don’t do, except for spam). Going through, I categorized the e-mail (more on that later), kept track of whether I replied or forwarded the e-mail, and how long it took me to reply. I also kept track of whether the e-mail was initiated by myself or came from someone else and whether the e-mail was directed to me specifically or whether it was just a general broadcast (some judgement calls in this).

Here's what I found:

Good news is that I don't instigate a lot of e-mail, which makes me feel better about myself–in fact, so few that I didn’t really think it was worth doing a similar analysis on my sent e-mail. But I did reply to a relatively large number of e-mails. But now that I think about it, I would guess this is the case for most academics. Most of their e-mail misery comes from others randomly bugging you, and I think it’s usually just a handful of others.

As for speed of reply, I’m generally quite fast, but there’s a long tail:
Zooming in on the short time-scale:

A pretty substantial number of replies actually happened within minutes, sort of like texting or something, then a tail of longer times to reply.  I actually expected this to be a bit more bimodal, but it's pretty unimodal, but with a long tail. I did notice that I have chunks of reply e-mail at the beginning and end of the day, which is good–my intention lately has definitely been to try and do as much batch processing as possible. I think I could be more disciplined about this, though.

Of course, the key piece of data is what different sorts of e-mail I get. Here’s how I broke it down:
  1. Spam
    1. Spam spam. Like, Nigerian Bankers who have a great deal on Viagra for you. 
    2. Science spam. This is various marketing for HPLC equipment or strange journals or whatever. I get a lot of this, presumably because various vendors have sold my e-mail to direct marketers.
  2. Bacn. Bacn is a very interesting category. It is like spam, but a level up: it’s something where there is some sort of relationship there, including perhaps direct solicitation of the e-mail. Here is how I broke that down:
    1. Personal. e.g. table of contents.
    2. TOC. Tables of contents of various journals.
    3. Science. ResearchGate, Nature Publishing Group
    4. Penn Bacn. Seminar announcements, thesis defenses, visitors, latest fund-raising drive.
  3. Scheduling. This includes setting up a meeting or lunch or whatever with someone, thesis committee meeting times, etc.
    1. Scheduling Bacn. These are scheduling e-mails in which you’re just sort of along for the ride. You don’t have to do anything, but the e-mail is there, perhaps asking you if you want to meet with so and so.
  4. Teaching. Students asking for help or whatever.
  5. Evaluations and Letters. Someone asking for you to evaluate a person or paper or whatever in some way, shape or form. An important part of our lives. I’m of course happy to do this for people who have been in my life in the lab. Less exciting is...
    1. Evaluations and Letters Bacn. This is any sort of evaluation of someone or something from outside. This includes, but is not limited to, reviewing papers.
  6. Research. This is what we’re supposed to be doing, right? Well, that all depends…
    1. Logistics. This is all stuff about orders, handling of manuscripts, lab organization, etc.
    2. Collaborations. This is managing various collaborations with other groups. This does not include close collaborators with whom we are doing real science together with. It’s more just like people whom we’re doing a one-off experiment with. Often, there is overlap with the Logistics category.
    3. Research Bacn: Seems like a weird category, right? These are what I would consider relatively unsolicited e-mails that are random and tangential to your research effort, but are science related. Like, someone sends you a link to a paper they wrote. Or someone had a thought after meeting with you. Or something. This is not quite Bacn in the sense that you may not necessarily be able to ignore all of it, but it’s not quite important enough not to be Bacn.
    4. Actual Research: This is, you know, actual research. Also a proxy for what I consider the most important to me. Mostly conversations with people whom we are working with closely about science. This can include making decisions about scientific goings-on in the lab, or thoughts on an experiment, or how to interpret something–basically, the fun part of it.

So what’s the breakdown? Here are some pie-charts (I’ll get to strategies I’m thinking about implementing later).

Let’s start with spam. Turns out I don’t get that much of it. It certainly doesn’t take that long to get rid of them. In fact, I have to say that I sometimes rather enjoy them for their humorous qualities. Here are four of my favorite examples:

Message 1:
Вы руководитель от Вас внезапно ушел бухгалтер!
Вас предали? Вы подставлены? Завтра налоговая?


Message 2:

Subject: Лучший Новогодний подарок - безопасность ваша и ваших близких!

Message 3:
Subject: Your  Account Was Banned
This is a joke :)

Than trying to work mounted on clumsy, long webfeet by the
ecriture artiste which the french writers that hears. Similarly,
employing the eye, it is a moment without devoting his heart
upon mahadeva. Towards the abode of bhishma, casting aside


Message 4:
Subject: Mandy - 100% results.
Gy, lol.Gy, lol.Gy, lol.Gy, lol.Gy, lol.Gy, lol.Gy, lol.Gy, lol.Gy, lol.Gy, lol.Gy, lol.Gy, lol.Gy, lol.Gy, lol.Gy, lol.Gy, lol.Gy, lol.Gy, lolGy, lol.Gy, lol.Gy, lol.Gy, lol.Gy, lol.Gy, lol.Gy, lol.Gy, lol.Gy, lol.Gy, lol.Gy, lol.

I think the Gmail spam filters do a pretty good job of getting rid of most of this cruft.

Bacn. This was perhaps the biggest surprise. Most of what I get is Bacn. And it’s super annoying to sort through, due primarily to the very nature of Bacn, which is something that you might conceivably be interested in. And one of the worst offenders is Penn! The amount of Penn Bacn I get is crazy. It’s primarily seminar announcements (and reannouncements (and re-reannouncements)) and various other random stuff that I may in theory want to know about, but I typically won’t. And it typically comes from a few prime Bacn distributors. The only problem is that I will sometimes get something important from these Bacners, and so I can’t just automatically filter them out into the trash. Hmm. These typically come mostly in the morning, which is when I try and get real work done.

Funny note about Bacn: I made some Bacn myself! Had to send out an e-mail to the graduate group about something or other. I feel sort of bad about it now. Even funnier, I even managed to send research-related Bacn to myself in the form of an e-mail to myself of a paper I thought I should read. Of course, I paid it about as much attention as all my other research-related Bacn… :)

Scheduling. Surprisingly large amount of e-mail just to schedule appointments. This was actually a relatively tame week in that regard, so I was sort of surprised how much e-mail circulated about that.

Research. Large number of logistic e-mails, often about shipping, etc. The shipping and ordering stuff doesn’t take up too much time, honestly, perhaps because we have a relatively small operation. It was interesting to see how much Research “collaborations” took up. To me, this is partly a matter of how much you invest in your scientific community, sort of like being a good citizen. That said, it is clear that this can suck your brain quite easily. Research Bacn is I think something that I get a lot more of than I imagine most people getting, for various reasons. Surprisingly (unsurprisingly?) little time spent on actual Research Research e-mails. Which I actually regard overall as a good thing: for most research discussions, I talk with the people in my lab directly. I think that is a far more efficient way to get things done, generally, and avoids those super long e-mails that take hours to craft.

So what to do with this data? I think I came to a few primary conclusions:
  1. I need to organize my e-mail so that the Bacn is out of sight most of the time. I try my best to ignore Bacn most of the time, but in practice, it takes a lot of discipline to avoid looking at all those e-mails during the day, especially when there are sometimes other interesting e-mails that interspersed in my inbox as well that I may very well want to deal with. To do this, I’ve implemented filters on Gmail to just send most of these to a specific folder that I will check once a day or so, hopefully in a really fast batch mode. There is some slight chance that I might miss a timely e-mail, but whatever. Looking at it now, perhaps this is obvious, but somehow I just didn't think of it before.
  2. I get a lot of research-related logistical e-mails that I should probably be delegating about ordering and the such. These are not quite Bacn, because I (or someone in the lab) do need to give some input or really read them, sometimes in a timely manner. But just as often not. I also noticed I got a few more of these this week than usual.
  3. Teaching: I didn’t get a lot of teaching e-mail this week, which is nice, but somewhat unusual. I actually have a specific teaching gmail account that I ask students to send to–this organization is very useful, and it allows me to make others do some of the organizing for me. Of course, you have to actually tell your students about it, which I of course forgot to do this term in my grad class. But I will definitely remember next term in my big required undergrad class. I will also be sure to have a policy that I only respond to student e-mails on one particular time of the week, no exceptions.
  4. Perhaps the most important lesson is to BE DECISIVE. Someone (and I’m so sorry, I forget who, and the comments got deleted) left an awesome comment on the blog somewhere about a simple rule, which is read each e-mail only once. I think that’s absolutely right. I definitely found myself reading an e-mail and then mulling it over and then mulling it over again. I have to not do that. If it requires thought, I should just make a (prioritized) to-do list item for it and then mark it as read and be done with it. Otherwise, I’m just cycling over and over again.
Anyway, those are some thoughts. I will try and implement this this week and post again once the results of this reorganization are in.

1 comment:

  1. Arjun, this account of your email adventures makes my brain hurt! Ma