Email, Slack, and messaging, oh my! How I triage email and other requests

The daily dispatch deluge

As I’ve progressed in my career, there are more people than ever that want my attention. I teach more students than ever, I have more collaborators than ever, I supervise more people than ever, I have more mentees than ever, and as my reputation has evolved, I’m part of more communities than ever. For my academic peers out there, I’m sure you’re like me, occasionally longing for those early days of graduate school when no one who knew who I was and so no one wrote me!

The result of this increased demand for my attention is that more kinds of people reach me through more channels than ever:

  • I get 100–200 emails a day, and somewhere around 50 of those require (or at least obligate) a reply or some work. These are a mix of staff, collaborators, students, random people from the public, email notifications, and mailing list updates.
  • Because I use Slack for my lab, I get 20–25 Slack messages a day that require a reply. And I ask for this: I like having a clear record of exchange between me and students in my lab, since it helps with context switching. I also occasionally use Slack for class so students can easily reach me with questions, and several of my academic communities use Slack.
  • I have some collaborators who prefer to use text messages or other messaging platforms such as Twitter, Facebook Messenger, or LinkedIn. I probably get 5–10 of those messages, plus invitations to be friends or connect on LinkedIn.

Now, if I really spent the time to consider each of these thoughtfully, and did so as they arrived throughout the day, I could probably spend all day just replying to people. In fact, I used to do that, and it was exhausting! It required a lot of task switching, which robbed me of time to focus. And the faster I replied, the more likely I was to get another reply right away, generating more work more quickly. I knew that wasn’t sustainable.

I’ve seen many strategies in academia for dealing with the deluge:

  • Ignore messages, or ignore them for a very long time. Sometimes it feels like this is most of my colleagues. When I’m reaching out for something I need, I might wait days, weeks, sometimes even months for a reply. And I must admit, it feels really disrespectful. I think taking a few days, even 5 work days, to get to a simple request, is pretty reasonable. But if it’s going to be longer than that, why not reply sooner and let me know when you’ll get back to me? Because I don’t like the experience of ignoring people, or making them wait, I haven’t been able to use this strategy myself.
  • Ignore low-priority requests. Unlike the strategy above, which just involves triaging very slowly, this strategy involves a bit of prioritization. I know faculty who will ignore all emails from students or people in the public that they don’t already know. Instead, they’ll use office hours and other networking times as a gatekeeping function. I’m sure its effective, but something about my upbringing just makes me feel really icky ignoring someone with a sincere question or need. I am in a position of public service after all. (Of course, I ignore all requests that don’t come from a sincere need, like spam, shady journals or conferences, or poorly targeted broadcasted requests for help).
  • Squeeze in email before or after “work hours”. I know some colleagues who try to reply to everything that needs a reply, and find as many little pockets of time they can to keep up with the firehose of requests. On the bus, at the airport, between meetings, walking to the office, in a meeting. This strategy is like trying to drink from the firehose whenever your attention isn’t otherwise occupied. There are a lot of things that make it hard for me to do this: 1) if I message while I’m walking, I literally run into things, 2) I like being present in meetings, or at least doing work related to the meeting, and 3) I like having a clear separation between work and life. I don’t like the version of my life that’s consumed with trying to keep up.

So after more than ten years of searching for strategies and tools to help, while trying and rejecting the strategies above, I’ve landed on a few strategies that I’m pretty happy with:

  • When I first arrive to my office in the morning, I do email, Slack, and messaging for 30–45 minutes. I schedule my day so that this is (nearly) always possible.
  • My first step is to archive all messages that do not require a reply. This means quickly trashing spam, notifications, and updates that I don’t find relevant, and closely reading any informational messages that don’t require action. I do this for all of the messaging platforms with new messages.
  • Having identified the remaining work, my next step is to organize messages into three buckets: research, teaching, and service. I organize my weeks into two research days, two teaching days, and one service day, so on research days I reply to research messages, on teaching days I reply to teaching messages, and on service days (Fridays), I reply to service messages. I aggressively use the snooze feature in Spark mail to ensure they show up on the morning of the right day.
  • Once I’ve triaged my inboxes into messages requiring action, I reply by priority, responding to the most important messages until I run out of time. I play a little game with myself, trying to write the shortest replies that I can, while getting to inbox zero with whatever time remains. When I run out of time, I snooze whatever’s left to the next appropriate day, or if the email is some large chunk of work time, I’ll leave it in my inbox and find a time to do it throughout the day.
  • In general, I only review and reply to messages once per day. To ensure I see urgent messages, I’ll occasionally do a quick triage and snooze if I have a 5 minute gap between meetings, archiving non-actionable messages, snoozing others, and replying to urgent things.
  • Just before I go home from work, I snooze whatever’s left in my inbox to the appropriate day so that I have inbox zero.

While snoozing works for email, it doesn’t work for other messaging platforms, since they lack snoozing features. Because of this, and because messaging is usually intended to be more instant and urgent, I usually prioritize messaging platforms before I do email. If a message on a platform is truly low priority, I might make a to do item that reminds me to reply to a message on another platform.

Note that because of my work/life boundaries, I don’t look at personal email at all during the day. I do the same process for personal email on the weekends (but at a much lower volume). I do reply to any messages from my close family throughout the day.

The result of the workflow above is that I really don’t spend that much time on messaging throughout the day, and most people get some kind of reply from me within one business day. If I have a particularly high volume day, they might have to wait two business days, or if it’s related to service, they might have to wait a week. But all of this waiting is okay with me: it’s usually far faster a reply than any of the strategies above, it results in far less context switching for me, and the work doesn’t bleed into my personal life.

Of course, sometimes this workflow fails. If I’m traveling and can’t do it, my emails and notifications overflow. If it’s a particularly high volume period, I might have to give more than 30 minutes to my process. Or if I have a scheduling fail and need to schedule over my email time, I might get behind. I usually fix this by just scheduling some other time to do it. In the worst case scenarios, I have an inbox zero day, spending a few hours clearing everything out.

I recognize that the workflow above requires a bunch of skills that I’ve carefully developed over years:

  • I have to have the self-control and desire to organize my week into different roles.
  • I have to have a strong sense of my priorities within each role.
  • I have to have the self-control to ignore messages that arrive throughout the day, even if I really want to reply to them (otherwise my attention will go to other people’s priorities rather than mine).
  • I have to keep a predictable schedule.
  • I have to be skilled at quickly reading a message, knowing what I want to say, and writing it succinctly.

If any of those seem hard to you, the above strategies might not work, or might require some practice. But if they seem doable, I think it’s well worth trying! I spend a lot less time thinking about messages, a lot less time replying to messages, and people who want my attention spend a lot less time waiting for a reply.

Do you have any strategies that you like? Do you see ways to make my strategies even more efficient and less stressful? I’d love to hear them!