Email in 4 Principles and 28 (Mostly) Small Moves

A new colleague asked me a simple question recently: do you have any advice about how to keep up with all the email around here? I’ve answered this question several times before, in a variety of contexts and ways, so I figured I would write down my current best answers in an easily shareable format.

To check, refine, and extend my thinking, I consulted Reshan Richards and Eric Hudson, getting the Small Online Kindness band back together for a quick reunion tour. The results are below, attributable to all three of us.


4 Principles

  1. As with many ill posed problems, email requires a current, best strategy. Strategies may vary from user to user, but what’s important is to actually have a plan so as to avoid becoming part of someone else’s. Have a consistent set of moves that you run through every time you open your inbox.  Too many people open their email mindlessly, just diving into the fray. Often they open it when they have some time to kill . . . or because they don’t know exactly what they should do next in their day . . . or because they’re looking for some quick energy. None of these approaches make you a bad employee or person. But they are the email equivalent of clicking on Netflix when you don’t know what you want to watch. Thirty minutes later, you might still be scrolling. Sixty minutes later, you might wonder why you’re watching a show about sharks or barbecue grills. (TL/DR: Have an email strategy that allows you to open your email, each time, with an intended outcome.)  
  2. When you’re actually in your inbox, be willing to spend time in order to save time. Fire off an angry email and you’ll probably have a multi-email (and possibly multi-meeting) mess to clean up. Allow newsletter subscriptions to multiply weekly or daily in your inbox without pruning, and you’ll soon have difficulty separating email signal from email noise. Fall into the habit of reading emails without acting on them in some way and your inbox will become dangerous rapids rather than a gentle gurgling brook. (For more on this topic, see this RW non-classic.)
  3. Try to be as cool as Cal. (Cal Newport, that is.) His writing is calm, clean, thoughtful, and practical — possibly because he actually sticks to his own sane and sound rules. Here’s one of our favorites: the fixed schedule. Put your email addiction on one.
  4. Get the tech all the way right — it’s worth the up front investment of time to set up a messaging app, other than email, that centralizes internal communication and an appointment or calendar app that reduces the need to email about logistics.

28 (Mostly) Small Moves

  1. Set aside a short though sacred block of time (~30 minutes) each morning and use it to clear your inbox.
  2. If you can’t address something in email quickly at the start of your work day, leave it in your inbox but carve out the time — on your calendar — to give it attention at some other point. If you don’t carve out the time, then you won’t ultimately eliminate the email (or the thing that caused it in the first place).
  3. If a message doesn’t require a response, and you’re not postponing it to later, read it, acknowledge it (preferably not by replying all), and then archive it.
  4. If you read a message and know you will never need to recall or call up any of the information in it, trash it.
  5. If you don’t think you’ll be able to give an email attention in 24 hours (or it doesn’t need to be within 24 hours), send a note to the sender with acknowledgment of receipt and an ETA for a response.
  6. If you’re in a rush during your first email session of the day, scan your inbox and snooze as many messages as possible, with one caveat: don’t snooze recklessly. Snooze to the precise day and time when you will be in a position to respond to an email or when you will need the email. (For example, if someone sends you a meeting agenda for a meeting that will happen in 14 days, you might snooze the email until 12 or 13 days so that you can review it at a time when you will want the information to be fresh in your mind.)
  7. If someone emails you to set up a meeting, send them your appointment or Calendly link. (This assumes that you / your organization followed Principle # 4 above.)
  8. If someone emails you internally, Slack them back to try and kill the email back and forth. (This assumes that you / your organization followed Principle # 4 above.)
  9. When possible, find people in-person to close a loop (harder these days), set up a quick call, or do a video call through Slack.
  10. Monitor redundancy in emails and seek more communal communication to address FAQ’s. How might a listserv or Google group or other online forum create a shared thread where responses can be crowdsourced?
  11. Archive emails that you might need again, especially if you use an email application that has a good search feature.
  12. During off hours and on the weekends, remain email aware (this is mainly advice for senior leaders), but have a plan for which emails would merit a response (hopefully just a few) and which would not (hopefully most). You can get back to it during the work week. Also, the more you email colleagues over the weekend, the more you normalize such behavior.
  13. If you feel you must email over the weekend, and if it’s not an emergency, schedule the message to go out on Monday or Tuesday so that you don’t set off an email back and forth over the weekend. (Plus, emailing on the weekend is a good way to ruin someone’s weekend, depending on the content of your message.)
  14. Before you trash an email, consider how it arrived in your inbox.  If it arrived by subscription, take the extra time to consider unsubscribing from that subscription.  If, on the other hand, someone is emailing you without implied permission, ask them to stop or tell them that you prefer that they email you on another account. Then, give them another email address that you check less frequently.
  15. Know if you can trust the search feature in your email application.  If you can, then by all means, use it to relax your approach to email.  Read and respond or just read, then archive and search as needed. 
  16. Send short, “I’ll reply by this date” emails to buy yourself some time and also reduce the need for others to send you another email to follow-up on a previous email.
  17. Use the timed send feature (available in some email programs) to space out certain email conversations. If you bounce an email back right away, you may receive more emails. If you send back an email in a few hours or a day or two, you will allow a situation to breath and possibly resolve itself. (We sometimes wonder — what would happen to the volume of email in the world if every email was sent on a 12 or 24-hour time delay?)
  18. Don’t be the bottleneck. This tip flies in the face of the advice offered in # 17 (or, rather, suggests that you apply that advice with discretion). If you’re sitting on emails that are holding up projects of people, then you need to get out of the way by answering the emails.
  19. Remember that every email response shapes the temporal expectation between two people. If you email right away a few times, any deviation from that will be noted. If you take weeks to respond, people may question your commitment to them or to a project. In the domain of email communication, build a reputation that is not impossible to maintain and yet reflects the level of respect you intend to convey in other areas of your daily life.
  20. Use Gmail categories.
  21. Write boilerplate responses and save them in your draft folders or in a text file. When appropriate, copy and paste them into a new email and edit lightly before sending.
  22. Move people to bcc when possible. It’s a fan favorite for a reason, and it also reduces additional email clutter.
  23. Ask to be removed from threads that no longer require or need your input.
  24. Craft response-proof emails. This style of emailing is worth the extra time — up front — to prevent ongoing back and forth.
  25. If an email is a request of you, try to nail down that transaction in one exchange.
  26. Aim for inbox zero every day, but allow yourself the leeway to hit this target by the end of every week. We know that’s a laughable goal for many people, but we have found that the effort to stay in really good email shape each week pays off in a more relaxing weekend and lower stress overall.
  27. If you answer the same question again and again via email, write a blog post/doc and share the link/doc the next time someone asks.
  28. And remember the email tortoise, who won the race the way all tortoises do.

Carefully and Open to All Paths / Failed Substitutions

It’s not everyday, in the random course of one’s reading, that a quote from a Pitchfork review of Bill Callahan’s music (mentioned a few days ago on this blog) connects to an article in Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management. Such, such were my joys.

First, from Mike Powell’s review of Bill Callahan’s new album:

If anything, Callahan often seems like he’s following his songs instead of leading them, carefully and open to all paths, the way a birder follows the call from wherever it comes. (He is a meditator, no surprise.) Even ”Ry Cooder,” a tribute to the roots-rock musician and possibly the dumbest song Callahan has written in 27 years is alive with punchlines, zig-zags, and little surprises a stricter sort of attention would miss. 

Second, from Karl E. Weick on William James:

William James is famous for this sentence: ‘If my reader can succeed in abstracting from all conceptual interpretation and lapse back into his immediate sensible life at this very moment, he will find it to be what someone has called a big, blooming buzzing, confusion, as free from contradiction in its “much-atonceness” as it is all alive and evidently there’. . . . What is less well known is that a few sentences later he makes the more crucial point that ‘The intellectual life of man consists in his substitution of a conceptual order for the perceptual order in which his experience originally comes’. We do not realize how much we ignore, but we realize it when projects are interrupted and structures break down. What we then see are failed substitutions that previously concealed ambiguity that was always there.

Source: “Ambiguity as Grasp: The Reworking of Sense,” by Karl E. Weick

Naming the Fish

We opened our school this week, and we’ve been working, daily, on debugging all the new programs that we’re running. People have to walk different paths (than usual) in the hallways, keep their classroom doors open instead of closed, and connect remote students to in-person students through miraculous though sometimes clunky technology. And that’s just in the first 15 minutes of any given day . . .

Yesterday, my lunch order got mixed up, so I missed a critical meal and spent the day feeling crankier and crankier as my blood sugar dropped. I went home, raided the fridge, and recovered. But I was still sore about the mistake.

Then my phone buzzed and I saw . . . a photo of my lunch. It was delivered, accidentally, to the wrong campus, about a mile away from mine. A colleague there, a second grade teacher, picked it up at the end of the day, took it home, took a picture of it, and fed it to her son.

The next morning, we were still laughing — over email — about the case of the missing lunch. She offered me some encouragement in the form of self deprecation: “I am taking things super slow in class . . . today, my one goal is to name our class fish.”

As I was building slides for my own class, a Satire elective for juniors and seniors, I found myself counting minutes and stacking content. “Could I fit in the Stephen Colbert video and the Twain quote . . . and the tour of the student LMS . . . while working in some written reflection time, and . . .”

I stopped and thought about the fish in my colleague’s classroom. About the collective brainpower it would take to develop a list of names, whittle it down, negotiate, compromise, agree, and heal any bruised feelings along the way. About what it might mean for a task to be essential these days.

Easy to say and explain? Yes.

Requiring complex cognitive processing? Yes.

Bolstered by collaboration? Yes.

I built this slide, with an assist from unsplash.com, and dropped it into my deck. Every ten slides. Repeat.

Hybrid Journal: September 6

I’ll explain that title later if evolves beyond the mere start of something . . .

Gold in the Gold Record Review

I guess all lives can be said to unfold in parallel to the evolution of a few great songwriters. One of those, for mine, has been Bill Callahan. I’m getting to know his new album — Gold Record — and I really appreciated this backhanded insult from Mike Powell’s review.

If anything, Callahan often seems like he’s following his songs instead of leading them, carefully and open to all paths, the way a birder follows the call from wherever it comes. (He is a meditator, no surprise.) Even ”Ry Cooder,” a tribute to the roots-rock musician and possibly the dumbest song Callahan has written in 27 years is alive with punchlines, zig-zags, and little surprises a stricter sort of attention would miss. 

Meetings as Unusual

(Image from Blending Leadership)

Schools love meetings even as many school people say they hate them. Partially, this contradictory state results from the good hearted, collaborative nature of many teachers. They like to tackle problems together, in the same room. Partially it’s a result of status games. If you’re in the important meeting, you must be important. Partially, it’s just an inherited default — you meet because, when you were a newer teacher or administrator, your mentors and predecessors met. They shared agendas and minutes and rules written by a guy named Robert. These pioneers and their descendants seldom, if ever, asked if meetings were the best way to solve the problems to which they were being applied as cures. 

Interestingly, then, the mode that schools love, hate, and have failed to fully interrogate for usefulness has come into question during the COVID-era. Whether we are remote or hybrid or full-capacity, we simply can’t meet the way we used to, the way we’d like to, the way we complain about, the way we know. 

In a meeting where senior admins at my school were discussing our typical after-school meetings — and how we would or would not hold them — it occurred to us that we needed to set some new ground rules. 

The first one was simple. We’re clearing our school buildings by 3:30 to allow for deep cleaning, so we can’t have meetings on-campus after school. If people need to meet after school, they must do so remotely, and at a time that allows a commuting and pick-up-the-kids-if-need-be buffer. 

Some colleagues will love this. They can end their on-site responsibilities for the day, drive home, get comfortable, and join a remote meeting. But the first problem borne of this solution is that, once colleagues with children are home, their attention is often, appropriately, consumed by the needs of their children. Those parents and caregivers should have a choice to “dial in” to meetings; they should have a choice to participate asynchronously; they should have a choice to not participate if it means that they have to “catch up” at odd hours; and they should not always have to choose between participation and their childcare responsibilities. 

Conundrums abound, and that’s putting it nicely.

I decided to call a meeting of my own to try to generate some additional solutions to our original problem — to meet or not to meet, and when. It was a simple meeting, comprised of a brief agenda, engagement by people whose collective energy and intelligence ensured an outcome better than one I could generate on my own, and finally, a set of notes. (Another way of saying this is: I tweeted a question at a group of smart, generous educators. Then I went on with my day. A few days later, once the responses died down, I pulled together the notes. They are presented as they were written and shared on Twitter. I mention that only because some of the words are clipped to fit Twitter’s character limit.)

Agenda:

What are after-school meetings looking like at thoughtful schools this year? Business-as-usual or rethought completely?

Notes:

@emilymccarren wrote first:

Rethought! Weekly q&a / office hours for pop in (some folks just come and hang). Weekly full faculty meetings are asynchronous modules in LMS. Group discussions, shared creation, can hear from everyone… (about 1 hr of engagement over the week). Will never go back!

@cinehead responded next:

We now have 2 hours of collaboration time built into our new block schedule each week! It takes place on our #SEL day that also includes office hours for Ss.

@wmstribling amplified some prior ideas and underlined our considerations with an important concern:

In our division, still working on details. Timely question as we just discussed this today. Don’t think we’ll have after school meetings and am loving these ideas! Open office hours a possibility with Q/A time. Wary of the load/duties of staffulty…

@ejhudson added some analysis and additional thoughts:

Emily’s model is a great one. Allows for personalized, on-demand learning for both educators and students. And: Online “hubs” for teachers to share great examples of curriculum/online strategies. Slack (or the like). Synch time for peer-based tackling of problems of practice.

@NicoleFurlonge added a better question than the one with which we started:

Fewer meetings. Ask the question: Do you need humans to come together to unpack these issues? If not, share info via email instead of meeting.

Shortly after, she added some additional suggestions:

Also opp to make room for mtgs as adult community bldg spaces. Suggestions: listening salons, storytelling sessions, talent shares. Share Ts practices. Lastly: ask for feedback on the mtg agenda to inform design of next mtg towards creating a culture of co-creation & feedback.

I (@sjvalentine) shared with the group a meeting innovation I’ve been using lately, though I admit it was a bit off topic because it is meant to disassemble a traditional meeting from the inside rather than rethink traditional meeting structures.

@crottymark chimed in next, looking more deeply into the future as he often does:

As I’ve been seeing all these, I see the possibility of the traditional weekly staff meetings morphing into ongoing, asynchronous growth experiences. Much more momentum and thus progress!

@NicoleFurlonge returned to the concept of listening salons, tying the mode to the essential functions of joy and community:

I’ve been hosting #listeningsalons for the past few months for different groups. Such an enjoyable and powerful space in which to build community through #listening.

I invited @reshanrichards to the meeting, but he declined, which is also a kind of meeting innovation. (It’s only effective in high trust environments, so apply with caution.) I know him well enough to know what he was thinking: 

“I’ve already written down and distributed my thoughts on meetings, so I don’t need to attend the meeting that you’ve called. I have nothing new or different to add except that good documentation can often preclude the need for a meeting.”

You can find his documentation — and mine — re. meetings here and here. It turns out, in the pre-COVID days, we had a lot to say about meeting structures and modes and purposes. In the post-COVID days, maybe we’ll be able to say less.