E-mails – love them or hate them?

Following on from last week’s blog, the second largest drain on my time is checking and responding to e-mails. I have  a love-hate relationship with them. On the one hand, they have revolutionised communication – with major activity in Singapore for example, it’s hard to imagine how we could work without them. On the other hand, those who are old enough to remember life without electronic communication will attest to the fact that we received far fewer ‘letters’ in those days. It is all too easy to press a button on a keyboard without thinking whether the recipient really needs to be aware of the content. Then there are the persistent ‘spammers’, including organisations who should know better.

The volume of e-mail traffic these days is, in my opinion, at risk of becoming a workplace stressor. I don’t mean NU specifically, but across the sector and beyond. So how can we bring some sanity back into our working lives? A while back, when I worked at the University of St Andrews, I attended a course on time management. At the time I remember thinking it was time well-spent, but as usual I have forgotten many of the key messages contained therein (which is ironic since I subsequently attended a  course on improving the memory!). However, I remember a couple of key points that might help you survive through the day. 

First, never check your e-mails before lunch-time. When the diary is manic (ie most of the time), this one helps to keep me sane. Initially this is very hard to do – try it. If you can overcome your desire to hit the keyboard first thing, the prize is that you can become pro-active during the first part of your day, i.e. you can get things done that are important to you. Subsequently, you can check your e-mails and attend to issues that belong to the agenda of others. If you work the other way around, you risk spending your day at the mercy of other people’s requirements, with the likely result that you can’t complete your own to-do list, which is a big stressor.

So what about the e-mail at 9am expecting a response by lunch-time? Simple – it doesn’t get done.

Second (and you might find this one hard to accept) – never send an e-mail unless you are expecting a reply. I must confess that I have some difficulty with this one myself, but let’s think about it for a moment. Why would you send an e-mail that doesn’t need a reply? Sending information perhaps – in which case this could be posted on a bulletin-board or wiki. Perhaps it’s a Cc of an e-mail to another recipient? Is the Cc necessary? What would happen if you didn’t send the Cc? Alternatively, maybe you are simply replying to a sender thanking them for their e-mail, in which case it needs to be understood that as part of ‘e-mail etiquette’, this courtesy is not necessary.

As an aside, a further critical thing I learned from the course is the importance of taking a lunch-break. This is apparently a proven means to reduce working stress levels. Overjoyed by this revelation, I subsequently ensured that I always took a half-hour lunch break daily. This behaviour lasted a full week before I returned to my bad habits – eating a sandwich at my desk and attending to e-mails.


About stevehomans

Professor Steve Homans is a structural biologist with an international reputation in the study of biomolecular interactions. He obtained his first degree and DPhil in Biochemistry at Oxford University, and secured his first academic position as Lecturer at the University of Dundee. In 1998 he received the Zeneca award from the Biochemical Society and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Prior to his current appointment he was Dean of the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds. Professor Homans brings extensive expertise of academic leadership and management, with a particular emphasis on organisational change.
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One Response to E-mails – love them or hate them?

  1. Joanne Middleton says:

    Email is just the 2nd largest drain on your time? 🙂 Staff with significant responsibilities get cc’ed into everything – just in case they ‘need to know’ and also for the purposes of leaving an audit trail! A lot of these cc and general mailing lists messages need to be glanced at some point, but are not urgent and do not need to disrupt our working day. As you say, you can change the time you look at email, to effectively reduce this disruption for yourself. I also wonder if IT could play a role in filtering out these messages. Solutions to reduce time spent on email could be time-saving to implement and very popular with everyone, and as you say de-stress our working environment.

    I recall one institute successfully convinced their staff to post messages on their intranet instead of cc’ing. This had the benefit of reducing the overall email and allowed the recipient to check the email on the intranet every day when they chose and to glance at a summary of all of these mails. This is less intrusive then mails arriving in the inbox and making you hit the delete key. Of course there are also ways to automatically intercept email from general mailing lists and put it in the intranet. I wonder if this would be an interesting mini-project to try and reduce the amount of email/time spent on email across the university…? Anyway for now I’ll try your tips and try to regulate my own time spent on it…

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