Academic Observer

E-Mail Onslaught: What Can We Do?

A joke that is making the rounds: God bumps into Satan after not seeing her for many years. “Satan,” She says, “you have been lying low. Except for nuclear weapons, you haven’t been up to mischief in the last few hundred years. Just the same old stuff: war, pestilence, natural disasters, terrorism. You’re losing your touch.” Satan smiles and says “No, you’re wrong. Where do you think email came from?”

Of course, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Remember when e-mail first came into our offices? It seemed A Great Thing: We could stay in touch with our colleagues; we could exchange ideas and papers; we could collaborate much more easily with people in far away locations. Google and other search engines tamed the Internet and allowed us to find information more easily. It was all supposed to be so good. Where did it go wrong?

Spam came creeping into our computers, first as a trickle, then as an avalanche. Then viruses that endangered our computers came riding in on the backs of e-mail attachments. A security industry developed to fight back, but the spammers and crooks seem to stay one jump ahead. However, at least for most of us, spam and viruses are not the main problem. We can train programs to recognize and eliminate most spam. The problem is the easy access that e-mail provides to us and the onslaught of messages we receive every day as a consequence, with most being missives that would never have come by regular mail or by telephone. Most days I get at least 100 messages, some days I get 150. They come from undergraduate students, colleagues, the department chair and dean, book publishers, graduate students, staff at the university, equipment salespeople, editors wanting me to review papers, editors rejecting or (occasionally) accepting papers, friends (or random people) wanting me to comment on their papers, granting agencies, people wanting a letter of reference, people sending jokes, and on and on endlessly. Many request or even demand an answer.

There are a few priceless classes of e-mail, and I wish I had created a special folder to save some of them. A few types:

From: The demanding student
To: Dr. Roediger
I am a student in your introductory psychology class. I cannot attend your office hours because you scheduled them when Chemistry 101 meets. (Didn’t you know that many of us were pre-med students when you assigned office hours?) As you know, we have a psych test this week, so I would like you to answer the following 8 questions about things I didn’t understand in the lectures. I would make an appointment to see you but now there’s not enough time. Thank you …


From: The great, but unknown, scholar
To: Dr. Roediger
You do not know me but I write nonetheless because I expect what I say will be of great interest. Until recently, I was Exalted Professor of Medieval Icelandic Literature at X University. I have retired and, with time on my hands, I returned to an old interest of mine: time, consciousness and memory. This field interests me, because the great Icelandic writer Ugensdottir had such profound comments on these matters. I have read your own work, sir, and I must speak frankly: I am appalled. Sometimes you seem to come close to (re)discovering the great Ugensdottir’s truths, but invariably you traipse down the wrong track. I think it is those experiments you do, which inevitably lead one away from the pure truth of introspection and rational thought, which Ugensdottir used for his great discoveries. (See his third book, from the year 1435, listed in my references). The purpose of my letter is to explain Ugensdottor’s writings in terms that even you can understand. I realize that the next 18 pages may not always be easy reading, but I insist that you consider each point carefully and answer my questions that are interspersed. To start,…

(I get two or three like this every year. Is it just me?)


From: Students at other universities To: Dr. Roediger Dear Professor: My teacher in History of Psychology has asked us to interview psychologists for a class project here at MCTU (Minnesota Cosmetological Technical University). She gave your name on a list and said you used to be President of something called APS. I googled APS and discovered it is the American Physical Society – a bunch of physicists! – so I was surprised my teacher put you on the list. Maybe you are a psycho-physics guy. Ha ha! Anyway, I have these 18 questions I would like you to answer and, I’m real sorry, but my assignment is due tomorrow so if you could hurry up about it I would be real glad. I get points off for every day that I am late. (Well, I guess now it’s “that you are late.”) Some of the questions are kind of personal but my teacher thought the whole class would be interested in your answers…

I digress. The point is that e-mail is certainly here to stay, for better or worse, so the question is how to manage it. I haven’t figured it out, but I have been collecting strategies to try. Spending much of the day on e-mail is certainly not a good use of time, so the question is how to avoid it. Here are some thoughts, most suggested by colleagues or in my reading. They do not form a consistent plan and some (like the first two) are mutually contradictory, but one strategy or another may work if you are having the problems I suffer. I hope more suggestions for managing e-mail will be provided by readers and published in a future section of the Observer, as discussed at the end of this column.

  1. Devote one hour to e-mail early in the morning and then get off for the day. Stay off. Many problems arriving during the day will be resolved by the next morning, so if you read a problem the next morning, don’t answer it until you have read all your mail. Perhaps it was time-limited and went away without your help; perhaps someone else solved it. Staying off all day will avoid your getting caught in an e-mail loop with someone, exchanging brief notes all day.
  2. Alternatively, devote an hour to e-mail late in the afternoon. That way you can respond to what has come in that day and overnight. If an hour is not enough for either of these strategies, schedule catch-up times twice a week.
  3. Don’t keep your e-mail on all day, pinging away with the music of new messages. That rule is incorporated into the first two suggestions. However, for many of us e-mail has an addictive quality, so that people feel compelled to check their in-box many times a day. (E-mail OCD may become a category in DSM VII). Don’t let e-mail rule your life.
  4. Do not respond to an e-mail message unless absolutely required to; set a high criterion on that requirement. Most people get and send so much e-mail they won’t notice if you don’t chime in with “OK, sounds fine” to some suggestion sent to a group.
  5. Read incoming messages quickly and put them into categories: 1) Respond immediately (so just do it). 2) Respond later, if there is still time in the hour. 3) Respond when there is time to catch up. Put most items in the third category and then catch up when you can. The idea is to set priorities. People will get used to not hearing back from you immediately and stop expecting it.
  6. Avoid hitting the “reply to all” key unless absolutely necessary. Much e-mail is of the mindless “me, too” sort. Work to cut down on this intellectual spam.
  7. Never respond to surveys online, except in the tiny percentage of cases when they concern an issue you really care about.
  8. Never, ever, respond to a spam ad, even if it is for a product you want. Respond once and you will get a thousand more ads.
  9. Create a separate account, different from your real university account, from which to order items from Amazon or other companies. This way you can order things you want and the spam goes to your alternate account.
  10. Only forward good jokes that made you laugh out loud. Admittedly, the criterion for some people is lower than for others (see the first paragraph).
  11. Do not let your in-box grow depressingly large. If a message has been there for a week and you keep avoiding the issue, either delete it or write the person and say you can’t do whatever it is.
  12. Create a great set of files and place e-mail that you might want into them. This helps solve the problem of the fat in-box. Move stuff you think you might want later into a well-labeled file.
  13. Keep messages short. When you have to write a new message, be concise. When you have to reply, make your answer shorter than the original message.
  14. Use the phone, at least sometimes. If an issue is tricky, a five-minute phone call might get the problem solved more quickly (and with better results) than five lengthy email exchanges.
  15. Don’t feel guilty for letting items sit. If an e-mail message makes you angry, wait a day or two to reply. Flaming is dangerous. Besides, most e-mail can wait. Remember, the beauty is that no one knows if or when you have read it.
  16. Wear out the delete key. As noted above, a high threshold for responding saves interminable exchanges.

These are only some ideas and are not from an expert. If you have a bright idea not included in the list, please don’t send it to me. I get too much e-mail already. However, we would like to hear from you for possible inclusion of your idea in a future issue of the Observer, so send the message to [email protected]. Help return e-mail to its original promise of a boon to academia rather than a curse.

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