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Manage the Time-Gobbler: E-mail

Tomorrow's Academic Careers

Message Number: 

“Never do today any task that may disappear by tomorrow.”



The posting below looks at several strategies that “can corral the time you spend on e-mail and open more writing time blocks”. It is from Chapter 3: Be Strategic to Build a Sustainable Writing Practice, in the book, Write More, Publish More, Stress Less! Five Key Principles for a Creative and Sustainable Scholarly Practice, by Dannelle D. Stevens. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102. © 2019 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.




Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Impostor Phenomenon in the Classroom


Tomorrow’s Academic Careers


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Manage the Time-Gobbler: E-mail



Strategy 7: 


The last strategy in this first set of strategies is to pay attention to how much time you spend on e-mail. Calculating how much time you spend reading and responding to e-mail is another activity that benefits from observation, reflection, and action. Opening an e-mail invariably leads to some thinking, let alone responding and maybe taking action. Even just seeing a notification that you have an e-mail can distract and derail your focus. By simply managing your time on e-mail more efficiently, you can accumulate more writing time. 


As responsible faculty members, e-mails have to be answered, at some point. However, as Perry (2012) describes in The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing, if you wait long enough, sometimes the expectation that you accomplish the thing you are avoiding just evaporates. You open an e-mail feeling guilty that you didn’t immediately address the prior request when you read the e-mail last week only to discover “Oh, we really don’t need that report on how you will convert your class to an online format after all. The provost changed her mind about putting funding into online learning this year.” Whew! Perry calls this “structured procrastination,” that is, “the art of making this negative trait work for you” (p. 2). Perry’s corollary is “Never do today any task that may disappear by tomorrow” (p. 65). Of course, we cannot always wait for the gods and goddesses of structured procrastination to bless us with this happy circumstance. We generally have little choice but to respond to e-mail. Here are several strategies gleaned from research, faculty, and my own experience that can corral the time you spend on e-mail and open more writing time blocks:


·      Silvia (2007) recommends that you do not even open e-mail until after you have done your writing in the morning. There is always something urgent, and even important, in e-mails that distracts, dismays, and delights but has nothing to do with your writing.

·      I recommend that you turn off the computer feature that notifies you when you receive a new e-mail. As said earlier, go to the notifications icon in your settings to change notifications such as the news, or e-mails or appointments. Though this is a brief distraction, after looking at it, it takes a valuable minute or two to get back to your work.

·      I keep a notepad next to my keyboard. If I interrupt my thinking with the realization that I need to write an urgent e-mail, I just write “e-mail Joanne about syllabus” on the notepad. That way the fear I might forget does not bug me while I am writing. I can take care of it later. 

·      I include advice to students in the syllabus about my e-mail practices. “If I do not respond in a day or two, just write me again. Sometimes e-mails just fall off the page.” Then, they usually nod, acknowledging that it happens to them, too. “Don’t feel bad about writing and reminding me again.” If it is urgent, like they need a signature on a document that day, I tell them to write “URGENT” in the subject line.

·      When I am reading e-mail and I realize I cannot answer the question now, I put a star next to the message. That makes it easy to find because when I sort that column all the stars come up.

·      Make a subject heading that contains an abbreviated version of all the vital information about a meeting. For example, “CI Masters Com Mtg Nov. 13, Thur. 9:00, ED 604,” translated as “Curriculum and Instruction Masters Committee Meeting November 13, Thursday, 9:00, Room ED 604.” As a committee member, I appreciate getting this kind of message in the e-mail subject line because sometimes I forget to write down the room or the exact time in my calendar. I also like to know the day along with the date. Also, for you as a sender, it takes less time to send out a reminder by putting all of these details in the subject line.

·      Write EOM (end of message) at the end of the subject line. That communicates to the reader that what is in the subject line is all there is to the message and they do not even have to open it. While this will take some training of your peers about the practice of using EOM in the subject line, you’ll appreciate the benefits. 

·      Other faculty add a message along the lines of “I will respond to e-mail for one and a half hours a day, usually in the morning. If you have something that requires urgent attention, state so in the subject line, with the prefix “URGENT, NEED RESPONSE TODAY.”

·      Keep your responses to e-mails brief. Following your greeting, lead straight into “I am writing to you because …” and use bullet points to highlight the key ideas. I do not hesitate to use bold font or other ways to flag the key message in the e-mail. Often people do not read the whole e-mail “beyond the fold,” which means they may not scroll down the page, so try to keep your message within the opening frame.


Because lack of time tends to be the most cited reason for not writing, spending some time observing, reflecting, and acting to allocate time for writing is beneficial, of course. However, the next question is, “Given that you have allocated time to writing, what is the best thing to do during the precious time that you have allocated to writing?”




Perry, J. (2012). The art of procrastination: A guide to effective dawdling, lollygagging and postponing. New York, NY: Workman.


Silvia, P. J. (2007). How to write a lot: A practical guide to productive academic writing. Washington, D