How to appear competent in one easy step

February 1, 2012, 2:53 pm

Manage your email inbox well. That’s all there is to it.

Photo of cat in a cardboard box

Not that kind of inbox.

I understand that there are faculty members and administrators who receive many, many hundreds of emails a day and find it nearly impossible to keep up with the volume. I wish them good luck. However, if you are a graduate student or postdoc, you do not receive “too much email.” You might think that you do, but you are wrong. I’m sorry, but it’s true. You are simply managing it poorly.

If you miss important announcements, if you regularly fail to respond emails from collaborators asking for input, if you can’t get things done in time because you “didn’t know” about them (because you didn’t see the email), you will be perceived as incompetent and a drain on more productive people. However, if you are able to quickly respond to queries and solve problems in a timely manner because you have good control over your email inbox, people will think you are amazing. I receive anywhere from 50 to 500 emails a day, depending on the time of year, and unless I’m away from my office, my email inbox usually has fewer than 10 emails in it. I strive for emptiness, but that can’t always be accomplished. I also keep my email open at all times, and so when an email comes in asking a question, I can often answer it in less than 60 seconds. People think I am a superhero.

I am not advocating keeping your email open at all times like I do – it can be extremely distracting and hinder more important tasks like writing and research. However, there are still lots of ways you can improve your ability to respond. (None of these tips are my own invention – I freely admit to being strongly influenced by David Allen’s Getting Things Done and Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero.)

  1. Quickly get rid of things that you don’t want to read. I get a lot of seminar announcements from various departments on campus, and the vast majority of them are deleted within 10 seconds of seeing them. If it’s a seminar I want to go to, I put it on my calendar and archive the message. There are lots of other kinds of messages that really don’t need my attention – I either delete those if they are not useful, or archive them so they’ll show up in a search later when I need the information. You can also use filters to automatically put such things in folders for you, so you don’t need to pay attention to them unless you want to.
  2. Stop subscribing to things you don’t keep up with. Do you get journal table of contents alerts in your email? Do you ever actually read them, or do you think that you SHOULD read them and then they sit there, cluttering up your inbox? If it’s the latter, unsubscribe and use an RSS reader to keep up with journals instead.
  3. Don’t use your inbox as a to-do list. Many people use emails as reminders for things they need to do. I used to do this too, but it is inefficient and annoying. Now, I add whatever it is to my task manager, and archive the message. Sometimes that to-do list item is simply “follow up on X,” which somehow annoys me less than seeing that email still sitting in my inbox, waiting for me to do something with it. There are lots of great task manager programs out there – give one a try if you don’t have one already. I have been devoted to OmniFocus ever since I first tried it in 2008 (it’s not free, and it’s Mac only, but if those things are ok with you, it is a seriously awesome program).
  4. Will it take less than two minutes to answer the email? Then answer it already.
  5. You don’t really believe you’re ever going to answer that 6-month-old email, do you? Just delete it already. You’re just making yourself feel bad by leaving it there, staring at you reproachfully.

Trust me, when your email inbox is no longer giving you a guilt trip every time you look at it, you’ll feel better, you’ll be more productive, you’ll look more attractive, and you’ll have more friends.

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