When it comes to emails, I used to be very responsive. I often replied to emails as soon as I read them. That made those who sent emails to me very happy, I suppose. But now, I know that I need to change the way I deal with emails, because being too responsive to emails may do some harm to my efficiency in work and life.
Have you ever heard advice like: check emails only twice a day, only reply to emails at the end of the day, keep your inbox empty? If you have not, do me a favor by searching on the Internet for keywords such as “inbox zero” or “getting things done.” However, I cannot employ that. In the academic world, things are very different, especially for the not-so-important graduate students like me. Your professor/advisor (i.e. your boss) may email you at anytime and ask you to come over for a discussion, or to do something for him/her immediately. If you do not check your emails and/or do not reply soon, they may think that you are lazy and not working hard enough.
Therefore, I made some decisions:
- I will create two folders in my email account: “@followup” and “@waiting”
- I will check my email accounts, at least my school email account, frequently during the day. Every time there is a new email, I will read it very quickly, or just read the subject, and decide to do one of the following actions:
- Delete it immediately (for “junk” mails).
- Reply it (or respond to it by doing some task) immediately if and only if it is quick (e.g. a two-sentence reply, or a simple “OK”/”Yes”, all take less than 2 minutes) or it is urgent. After that, move it to an appropriate folder (see below).
- Otherwise, either leave it there in the inbox, optionally marking it as unread, or move it to an appropriate folder (see below).
- After being read/processed, an email should be moved to one of the following folders:
- @followup: if I will need to follow the conversation in the emails later. For example, a sequence of emails to arrange a dinner with friends next week should be in here. I should check the email threads in this folder at least once a day, preferably at the end of the day.
- @waiting: this is a special kind of follow-up. Emails in this folder are those to which I am waiting for (important) responses from other people. For example, when I send an email to a person requesting for some information, I should CC myself and put it here. Note that emails in this folder need response from other people for the conversations to proceed, while emails in @followup may require me to reply to others. Also, emails in this folder are usually more important. This folder should be checked regularly, at least once a day.
- @reference: emails that I do not need to reply/follow up but I need to keep for later reference. For example, emails about an upcoming event that I will attend, or confirmation emails for my purchases/rentals. When an email in this folder becomes expired, it will be either deleted or moved.
- Archive: for emails that are not current but need to be kept (for reference, for evidence…). Eventually, all emails in the other folders will be either deleted or moved here. When my email account becomes full, I will delete old and unimportant messages in this folder.
- Twice or three times a day (one at around noon, one in late afternoon, and possibly one at late night), I will check and reply to emails that I haven’t responded, and follow up emails in @followup and/or @waiting. At the end of the day, my inbox should be empty (“inbox zero”).
I will try this new procedure and see if it works and helps me to improve my efficiency.