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August 17, 2009

Tomorrow's professor & Prof. Hacker

There are two blogs on academic productivity/best practices that I follow. Tomorrow's professor usually covers things academically (in detail, with references, etc.), Prof. Hacker is quite a bit more random but hits on just as many intriguing topics. For example, Prof. Hacker recently recommended stockpiling dry goods to survive through the semester. A bit extreme. Plus the more you buy, the more you consume. Plus you don't face the interesting challenge of eating down your pantry & fridge for as long as you can without going shopping (or it would take so long it would be boring).

Recently Prof. Hacker had a post about email productivity. Inbox 0 and such were touted as lifesavers. I've personally "implemented" the Trusted Trio system and have been using it for well over a year. The idea is that you read each email once, answer it immediately if it will take < 3 minutes, put it into the "action" folder if you need to answer it but it will take a little while, into the "hold" folder if you can't really take action, but you'll need to revisit it, and otherwise just archive/delete it. This way your inbox spends most of its time empty.

The reality for me was a bit different. First of all, the #1 email lifesaver is the "not to me" filter. If it doesn't have my email address explicitly in the to or cc field, it goes into a "mailing list" folder, which raises no "new mail" flags and in general waits for me to get to it, rather than calling attention to itself. The other time saver is the nostalgy add-on for Thunderbird that allows me to sort email with keystrokes.

Now my "inbox" is rarely 0. It usually has 50-100 messages. Most of them require some action from me. Why not just file it into the "action" folder? Well, because the "action" folder is a scary place. Instead of visiting it every day regularly like all the email self-help articles suggest, I go there only when I'm feeling very brave. It has some reviewing assignments, but also many, many emails with attachments. Students requesting feedback on projects & write-ups, researchers who want to call attention to their papers, or even worse, books. Other researchers who are proposing joint books, projects, proposals. Or helpful individuals who are sending helpful resources or papers that I should check out. All very worthwhile emails. But not ones I want to worry about right now.

Normally an unfiltered inbox is diluted. Such messages occur only once every 10 or 20. However, the action folder is nothing but this high-time commitment stuff. So I only really place messages in the action folder if I'm pretty sure I won't take action for a few days... or weeks...

What about answering email as soon as I read it? Well, I find (and this has been acknowledged by the email gurus as well), that the more you write, the more people write back! So it follows that if you reply within minutes, your incoming email will start arriving at a higher rate. And that seems self-defeating.

Posted by ladamic at August 17, 2009 02:49 PM

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