Handling Email (Part IV)

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

(This is now the fourth installement in the series on how I manage email. You might want to start with the initial explination. Read the intro on why you need a mail program. And look thru the rules I tell my students. This should explain everything up till this point.)

Allright up until now has just been some of the basic info, the “barebones” if you will of handling email. But this entry starts the “key” tricks for managing all of those emails you get from students during the school year, this is the stuff that will make you the envy of all those who feel overwhelmed by email. The first thing to do is set up folders in a way that will help you stay organized.

First a meta-explination:

Let me start by saying I didn’t develop any of this, I am not an expert at it, I pretty much stole these ideas and techniques from others. They just work so well I try to recommend this to everyone I know, especially those whose “work” life involves receiving emails.

An inbox is an inbox, not a storage container for all of your emails. I seriously know people who have over 2000 messages in their inbox. This makes handling email difficult for several reasons. First, you have to load your inbox to see you messages, loading 2000+ emails can take time. Second, this amount of “stuff” in an inbox can be psychologically oppressing. Third, this makes it hard to sort thru all of your emails and distinguish between ones you are saving and ones that you have yet to deal with. You wouldn’t create a huge pile at home of all the mail you have received over the last two years, stacking it higher and higher as the mailman brings you new letters everyday, why handle email this way? You would not believe how much a relief it is every day to have an inbox which looks like this:


This is a way of handling email generally referred to as “Inbox Zero.” You can read a wonderful collection of posts and tutorials about this at 43 Folders. I am just going to cover the basics here, with a few nods towards my specific concerns as a professor. Once you get started it is worth your time to read this whole series, as it also talks thru how to deal with those 2000+ emails in your inbox now.

The general philosophy behind handling email this way is to keep your inbox at zero thus the rather cleverly named “inbox zero.” No, this doesn’t mean that you answer and delete every email that comes into your inbox, not at all. But rather, that when an email comes in you decide what has to be done with it, and put it in its appropriate place to handle it when you can; sorting email that needs to be acted on from email that needs to be stored. Again as with regular mail its like separating out the magazines you get into one pile, throwing out the junk mail, stacking the bills in a “need to be paid file” and putting the letters that need a response in another. For whatever reason this seems intutive with postal mail, but not with email.

Folders: Your best friend.

For me the first step in getting this done is creating all the folders. Here is a close up of the folders.


Let’s just focus on the ones under “Albany” (the other folders you see in the first screenshot are for other accounts). Let’s start with the three in the middle labeled “Needs Response&rdquo,; ”Student Response,“ and ”Waiting Response.“

If an email comes into my inbox from a student, that requires me to do something, like email them back, comment on an assignment, schedule a meeting (response here means any sort of response not just responding to the email by writing another email, but responding as in acting) I ”toss“ said email into the ”Student Response“ folder. If an email comes in from one of my friends, colleagues, family members, etc. that requires a response (again response in the broadest terms) I ”toss“ it into the ”Needs Response“ folder.

The reason I have two separate folders here is I often want to deal with all of the students emails at once. This way I can schedule meetings with them conviently. If some of them have the same concerns I can draft one email in response to all of them rather than retyping the same email ten times. And most importantly I want to put myself into a ”time to help students“ mindset for responding to their emails rather than a ”oh god, another email just interrupted my work.“ Than at some point in the day I take ten minutes to respond to all of the emails in this folder, if some emails require lengthy responses I leave them in the folder until I have time to draft a lengthy response. This way I can handle the emails on my own schedule rather than feel that they interupt me. Handling email is a ”break“ rather than a burden. After writing for a couple of hours on my dissertation. I welcome the chance to do this kind of work.

The Waiting Response folder is for emails to which I have already responded, but am waiting for someone else to respond. This way one folder gives me a sense of all the ”outstanding“ communications I have out there.

Archive is the biggest folder in my account, this is where I throw everything that I have done/dealt with, am finished with but that is not related to classes I am teaching, but at some point in time might need to reference again. Because the apple mail program comes with a search function it is easy to search thru this folder to find what you need.

Classes is the archive for all of my student emails. Once I have finished responding to students emails this is where they go to be saved. Again as with archive easily searchable should I need to. At the end of a semester I can just pull all the emails out of this folder and move them to an archive, something like ”Classes Spring 06.“

Computer is for all of the passwords, account varification, software licenses, bug fixes etc I am tracking, this is really specfic to how I handle things so not so useful for everyone.

Finally there are the drafts, trash and sent. I put a ”z“ in front of them to get them listed alphabetically last, as their only use is when I am forced to access my account thru webmail and end up composing, deleting etc. that way.

I think the key to managing email this way is to have few enough folders that it seems manageable, but enough that you are able to sort your daily routine. Handling email this way requires that you make a habit of reviewing your needs response, waiting response type folders, or having them does you no good. And most importantly it requires that you make a habit of clearing out your inbox. If an email takes only two minutes to respond to sometimes I deal with it immediately, but I always make it a practice of clearing out the inbox, this way I feel in control of the email rather than feeling overwhelmed by it.