Desert of My Real Life

{July 1, 2012}   Email: Buried Alive

I became the chair of my department a little over a year ago and within a few months, I found myself completely overwhelmed by email. Emails started to get buried in my inbox, either read and then forgotten or never read at all. I realized that I needed to use part of the summer break from teaching to develop a new system for dealing with the volume of emails that I receive in this position.

I have been using email since the 1980’s and have used the same process this entire time to deal with emails. I would keep emails in my inbox that I wanted to pay attention to for some reason (interesting content or information I might need in the future were the two major reasons) and if the email contained a task that I needed to complete in the future, I would mark it as unread. A few years ago, I started to use a system of folders for emails with interesting content or useful information. I maintained my habit of marking future task-oriented emails as unread. This system worked for years for me. Every summer, I spent a couple of hours cleaning up folders and my inbox. It was completely manageable.

As department chair, however, the number of emails that I received increased dramatically. The number of emails with interesting content, useful information or future task information also increased dramatically. But I think the thing that started to bury me is that the number of interruptions that occurred through the course of a day also increased dramatically. What that meant was that I might be in the middle of reading email when someone would come into my office and I would immediately give them my attention. If I was in the middle of reading an email, I might (and often did) forget to complete the process of dealing with the email. So emails with important task information might not get marked as unread or emails with interesting content or useful information might not get filed into the appropriate folders. Or I might forget where in the list of emails I had gotten to in my reading so that some messages were marked unread because I truly had not read them.

I soon found myself with over 2000 emails in my inbox, over 650 of which were marked as unread. A big problem with the unread messages is that I had no way of determining whether they were unread because I really hadn’t read them or because they contained important future task-related information. I was using that category for two very different purposes. I had no idea what those unread emails contained. Organizing my inbox began to feel like an insurmountable task. I began to have anxiety about the idea that I might actually have 650+ tasks that I needed to deal with. And we all know that we don’t work best when we feel overwhelmed and anxious. I knew I had to figure out some other way of dealing with my email.

My book club buddy and I read Time Management for Department Chairs by Christian Hansen. I attended a workshop that he presented at the Academic Chairs Conference that I attended in February in Orlando and although I found much of what he said about time management incredibly useful, I ironically didn’t have time during the Spring semester to implement very many of the ideas he presented. He has a couple of interesting things to say about managing the email deluge that I wanted to try to implement but I really needed to get my email under control first.

Here’s what I did and what I plan to do to keep things organized.

First, I needed to clean up my inbox. I began by reorganizing my folders. I did my normal summer clean up of the folders and then added a folder called “Defer” which I’ll come back to. Then I started on the inbox itself, reading the emails to determine what I was going to do with each one. I had four choices, which Hansen calls “the four D’s.” I could “delete,” “do,” “delegate,” or “defer.” I spent over 10 hours one Sunday deleting emails which needed no response from me or doing whatever task was required by an email if I could deal with it immediately. Doing whatever I needed to do sometimes meant delegating the task to someone else so I wrote a bunch of emails asking others to do things. Other times, “doing” meant answering questions. And still other times, it meant filing the email in one of my email folders. And finally, if dealing with an email required more time than I had available to me that day or required information that I didn’t currently have or required someone else to do something before I could do what I needed to do, I put it into the “Defer” folder that I mentioned early. I can’t explain the elation I felt when I finally had 0 emails in my inbox. What was more amazing than having 0 emails in my inbox was that I only had 9 emails in my “Defer” folder! I had been SO worried about what I wasn’t dealing with and it was such a relief to find that there were only 9 emails that I couldn’t deal with that day.

So that’s how I cleaned up my inbox. Now I have to maintain it and that means implementing a different system for email. Hansen suggests only looking at email at designated times during the day, times when you are unlikely to be interrupted. And the four D’s should be the practice every time you look at your email. I think I can manage this part of the process although it’s difficult to tell in the middle of summer when email only trickles in. The part that might be more difficult to me involves a larger picture time management strategy.

Hansen suggests that we should all abandon the daily to do list. It leads us to be often in crisis because each day we’re only dealing with the things that HAVE to be done on that day. Instead, we should create a master to do list that contains the things that absolutely must be done by a particular day but should also contain things that we’d LIKE to do, things that are not critical but that will help us to be more productive in the long run. A great example of this kind of thing is planning. Many of us would like to develop plans for our departments (or our lives) but that kind of work always gets put on the back burner, to be done when we “have time.” Ironically, not planning often takes more time in the long run as we have to deal with things when we’re in crisis mode rather than ahead of time when we’re thinking clearly. Hansen also suggests that when we’re creating our schedules for the week or the month or the semester, we should put these kinds of tasks on the schedule and actually do them when we schedule them. What does this have to do with the “Defer” email folder? We need to regularly put time in our schedule to deal with the tasks in that folder. In fact, we need to schedule time to review the tasks that are in the folder so that we can then put the tasks on the calendar. It’s this bit that I’m worried about. I worry that there will be crises and I will be unable to resist putting off the “Defer” folder review and planning. But I’m going to really try to implement this step. I think it’s the only way the entire system will work.

One follow-up: In the 10 hours that I spent deleting and otherwise dealing with emails, I clearly didn’t read them all carefully. Just this past week, I got an email from one of the administrators at my University about a student who claimed to have sent me email a week earlier and that I had not responded to. I have no recollection of the email whatsoever but I also don’t doubt that the student sent the email and I simply deleted it unread. When I shared that story with a friend, she said that was her biggest fear in deleting emails, that she will miss something important. And although I acknowledge the risk (especially since it actually happened to me), I still think cleaning up my inbox was worth that risk. If I had not cleaned up my email, that student message would likely have remained buried in my inbox for the week and the student would have complained to the administrator anyway. So I would have had to deal with that issue either way. The difference is that I now feel pretty confident that future student emails (or other emails) will not get buried and I will no longer have this problem. In addition, my anxiety level about my emails is currently at zero which I think makes me more productive. That alone is worth the effort.

I’m curious about how other people deal with the email deluge.

{May 14, 2008}   Hyperconnectivity

I recently wrote about being connected while traveling and said that I didn’t think it was necessarily a good thing. A recent study suggests that too much connectedness, called hyperconnectivity, is actually counter-productive for workers. We should all disconnect as an effort to help the flagging US economy. We can call it patriotism.

{May 4, 2008}   Traveling with Technology

I just got back from the annual Eastern Communication Conference in Pittsburgh. As I sat in the airport waiting to come home, I started thinking about the amount of technology I was carrying with me. I had a cell phone, an MP3 player and a laptop. I called home from the airport on the cell phone. I used the laptop to look at my email using the free wireless network in the airport. And I listened to music on my MP3 player both in the airport and on the plane.

I used to travel a lot for business–in fact, for one year in the late 1980s, I traveled to Parkersburg, West Virginia from Western Massachusetts nearly every week.  At that time, the only thing I would carry with me was a book. Very low-tech.  Once I left for the airport, I was out of touch with my office. And that was actually ok. Everyone survived. Our work got done on time.  I’m not sure that it’s an advance to be so connected all the time.

{April 16, 2008}   Professional vs. Personal

Ann recently said to me that she was surprised to find that I had put pictures of my niece and nephew on my PSU web page. She had expected my web site to present the professional side of me and not the personal side. Her comment started me thinking about how to separate these two sides of myself. I’m not sure I can. If I think about my life as a continuum, with the professional side on one end and the personal side on the other, I can see that some things fall clearly on one end or the other. Most things, however, fall somewhere in the middle of the continuum.

For example, I have been a huge game player since childhood. I played all kinds of games with my family. One of my favorite game-playing memories is of playing Scrabble with my mother when I was about eight and she had no mercy on me and my eight-year-old vocabulary. I played organized sports all through high school, college and into adulthood. I play video games and board games and card games even now. For most of my life, I would have considered this to be on the personal end of the continuum. But then, about nine years ago, I started to incorporate games into my classes. When I taught Fundamentals of Computing, I would have students play Sherlock and then write an algorithm for how to make guesses in the game. When I taught Client/Server Programming, I had students work on an Internet-based game for their semester project. When I taught Artificial Intelligence, I used games of all sorts to motivate the discussion of various algorithms. When Evelyn and I wrote our Software Engineering book, the project that we developed within the text was a large-scale, multi-player, Internet-based game. Gradually, my interest in game playing has moved further and further to the middle of the continuum between my professional and personal life.

And then two years ago, I had the opportunity to move to the Communication and Media Studies department and teach classes in Digital Media. With this move, my interests in game-playing have become the center of my professional life. Now I spend some part of every day thinking about games, talking about games, writing about games, teaching about games, and playing games. Games are everywhere in my life. How could I separate the professional aspect of game-playing from the personal aspect? I don’t think I can. And that’s part of what I both love and hate about academia.

{April 3, 2008}   Email Problems

We have been having some email problems on campus this week. I’m not sure what’s happening but I do know that our email server will be updated in some way on Sunday. I’m guessing the announcement of this update has something to do with the problems that I’ve been experiencing.

Email has been very slow. I’m using Zimbra as my email client and the slowness manifests itself in a number of ways. First, when I click on a message in my list, it sometimes takes 5 minutes or more for the body of the message to appear in the reading pane below the list. Second, once the message appears and I try to reply, it can take so long for the server to respond that I get a message saying that the server appears to be busy. The dialog box that appears makes it seem as though I can cancel the request to send the email and therefore, send the message again. Doing so will send the message to the recipient twice. Of course, waiting for the server to respond as I move from email to email or try to respond to an email is incredibly frustrating.

The thing that strikes me this week is how much I rely on email. I almost feel like I can’t work at all when my email isn’t working properly. I rely on email for so many things–committee communications, students handing in assignments, me grading assignments and sending the grades back to the students. Yesterday morning, I was trying to grade assignments for a class that had been sent via email and the delays between choosing the email from the list and the email actually being displayed were so significant that I would lose my train of thought about what I was doing. I was unable to grade the assignments in time for my class. The delays in email prevented me from doing my job! It’s not until email doesn’t work properly that I realize how much I rely on it in my work.

et cetera