Driving back from deanery chapter last week with a colleague, the subject of emails come up—I cannot now remember why, possibly in discussion of ‘What does the rest of the day hold for you?’ The mere mention of the word elicited a deep groan; who looks forward to dealing with their email inbox? It is not the fresh and exciting ones that only came in today and promise new adventures that are the problem. It is the ones that lurk at the bottom, that have been sitting there for weeks and which you keep avoiding, but which stare back at you accusingly whenever you dare to scroll down that far—those are the challenging ones.
When I worked in a college, I calculated that I received, on average, 108 emails a day. This was a ridiculous extreme, and won’t be typical of most. But my impression is that the Church was a fairly early adopter of electronic communication, and now not only messages but important documentation comes by email. At one level that suits most clergy; since many are (in Myers-Briggs terms) more Introvert than the general population, having discussions by sitting at the computer in one’s study might be less demanding than a series of face-to-face meetings. But clergy are also, as a group, more iNtuitive than the wider population, who are more Sensing, and this can make focussing on the detail of email management more demanding than it would otherwise be.
Before saying anything else, it is worth reflecting on what appropriate goals should be for handling email. It might be nice to think we could empty our in-box at the end of every day (the ‘zero in-box’ philosophy). But since other people decide whether to send us emails, if we aim for that, we are in danger of handing over our diary to other people. (That might absolve us of responsibility, but it is not a great way to be effective at anything.)
Here are my tips for handling email well and staying sane.
1. Make use of folders
On Apple mail, the folders that appear in the left column are called ‘mailboxes’ and you add them by clicking the + sign at the bottom left. Folders are useful for at least three things.
First, they function as record keeping filing places. When I order a train ticket online, I move the confirmation email into my ‘travel’ folder. That means I not only have the details of the journey, but I also then build up a complete list when it comes to claiming expenses or completing my tax return.
Second, they can be used as temporary holding spaces. I have a folder ‘Do later’ for things which are not urgent or important, but which I might get round to at some point. (This is less emotionally painful than deleting something immediately!).
Thirdly, they can be used to direct emails coming in straight into folders other than your in-box—in other words, to do some instant filing for you. This is executed by rules you put in place…
2. Implement rules
On Apple Mail, rules are set under Preferences/Rules. You can add in a rule to direct an email to a folder you have created based on the sender, content, or any other characteristic of the email. This is a powerful way to keep your in-box uncluttered, especially from things that are regular communications rather than personal ones from individuals.
I have rules that put all Facebook notifications into a Facebook folder, all my church-related mail into another folder, my blog traffic into a blog folder, and all other subscriptions into another folder. This means that my in-box mostly consists of one-off mail from individuals; when I don’t have time to respond to all the other stuff, I can just focus on this.
3. Review your mail
I was once told ‘Email is like paper; you should handle it only once.’ I don’t think either of those things are true. Some email is like receiving a letter or a document, and needs to be handled accordingly. But other email is like someone putting their head round the door of your office or study and saying ‘Do you have a moment?’ It would be rude and unwise to refuse ever to give the moment that is being asked; but it would be foolish always to invite them in and ask them to sit down. Which you do depends on the nature of the request that it being made.
So I always look through my mail more than once. The first time is to decide ‘Can I deal with this straight away without disrupting my schedule?’ If so, then I might reply immediately. But if it needs a longer response, then it needs planning and filing—and probably a note in the diary allocating time to formulate a response or take action.
4. Keep track by replying
I receive quite a number of emails which include information about future events or which I might want to refer to again. I could create a filing system for it—but that takes time and effort. If, however, I send a simple reply ‘Thank you!’ and I have set my Preferences/Composing to ‘Quote the text of the original message when replying’ then all the details are included in my reply. This is automatically filed in my Sent email box, and I have set my Preferences never to delete Sent emails—I do that manually for anything more than about three years old.
If I need the details of the meeting, I just then need to search for the person who arranged it or the name of the meeting, and the information will be there. An alternative is to file the email in an ‘Information’ folder (see above on ‘folders’).
5. Use Your Signature
All email systems have the option to include a signature. This is not really a signature—it is more like the details you would include on headed notepaper. If you include all your contact and title information, it gives people everything they need to be in touch with you in future.
6. Make use of the Drafts facility
You can compose an email and save without sending it—which offers a great space for jotting ideas down or keeping notes. Rather than send a series of short emails to a colleague when you think of things, why not keep a draft email with that person’s name on, and add items as you think of them? This can then form an agenda for when you next meet.
You can also use draft emails for gathering ideas for a research project, for a sermon that is coming up, or for a meeting agenda.
7. Take time to think about how you are handling emails
Dealing with email can take up quite a bit of time in the day—so, as with any time-consuming task, we should reflect on how well we are handling this. Am I happy with how I am managing my email correspondence? What is going well? What am I doing wrong? Have I missed deadlines or meetings because I have not responded well or kept track of information?
There are two particular questions it is worth reflecting on. When is the best time of day to focus on email correspondence? Is it first thing, when I am alert and awake? Or should I be using that time for something else? Do I work best doing email all at once, or is it better to respond through the day? The second question is: how much time do I want to spend on emailing? In the end, we need to make a decision as to how important this is for us, and allocate time accordingly.
I have found these simple ideas make managing email much easier. I attach here a short paper I wrote for my institution to help with both managing and sending emails sensibly. It is worth paying some attention to how we use email—doing it more effectively can free up time, reduce stress and make life easier.
What have you found that works well? Share your ideas in the comments below! (This is a revision of an article posted last year—but it is as pertinent as ever.)
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