Making the Most of Email

A guest post from Dr Rodger Caseby.

Email is meant to ease communication but all too often it can become an insurmountable mountain as out inboxes fill up faster than we can empty them. A couple of years ago, I came across a method for dealing with email designed by Kevin Kruse (ww.kevinkruse.com). He had analysed how business leaders used email and had distilled five common principles:

  1. Unsubscribe from newsletters.
  2. Turn off all notifications.
  3. Think twice before forwarding or copying others in.
  4. Keep emails short.
  5. Process email in three 20-minute periods a day using the ‘four Ds’: delete, delegate, do, defer.

I have adapted these in a way that suits my needs as a teacher. I’ve found that it cuts down the amount of time I spend processing emails and enables me to do it much more efficiently.

  1. Unsubscribe to a few selected newsletters. 

The world of education seems to be one of constant change and it can be hard for those who actually do the teaching to keep up. I like having information pushed to me rather than having to search for it, and I find some newsletters invaluable. On the other hand, many ‘sign up to our newsletter’ buttons are just a marketing ploy to get your contact details, so it is wise to be selective about what you subscribe to. It’s aIso worth trimming down subscriptions if information is being replicated. A short list might be:

  • Information from your LA or Academy Group
  • Information from your union or professional association
  • Information on your subject area(s) or Key Stage from an informed source
  • If you’re a sucker for punishment, newsletters from Ofsted and the DfE
  1. Turn of all notifications. 

This is sound advice but at first I was worried by nagging doubt:  ‘what if I miss something important?’ I’ve decided that I’m actually more likely to miss something important by being continually distracted by email notifications. If you are on tenterhooks waiting for a particular message, you can always turn on a notification, but on a day-to-day basis, I find it’s best to get on with what’s in front of me and leave the notifications switched off.

  1. Think twice about forwarding and copying others in.

 “Sorry for the mass email” is an interesting phrase. It’s pretty much like writing “I know I’m copying in 200 people who don’t really need to read this, but I’m going to do it anyway.”  It may save a little bit of time to select the name of a mail group, or click ‘all staff’, but now that most systems are predictive, it doesn’t take long to type the names of those I actually want to reach. When copying in people to an email, I have found that It’s worth being discerning, finding the balance between who needs to be in the loop and reducing the email load I create for others.

  1. Keep emails short. 

Recently, when writing an email that was becoming lengthy, I found myself thinking ‘I should write this as an attachment’. If it’s a document others need to consider, I realise it’s easier for all if it’s an attachment. The email alerts recipients to what the document is without having to trawl through a lengthy test. They can then give the document their full attention at a time when they are free to do so.

What I find harder is the balance between brevity and courtesy. I like to put a proper salutation. If I haven’t been in touch with someone for a while, I’ll enquire how they are. I’ll then add the main content and sign off with, for example, ‘best wishes’. When I receive emails that don’t include these courtesies, I sometimes feel a bit miffed. That will not, of course, have been the sender’s intention: they are a busy person and the shorter email is just more efficient. If it’s an answer to something I’ve asked, then I’ve got what I wanted. The balance I try to strike is; include the courtesies in the first email, but then subsequent messages in a conversation can just follow on without salutations, etc, as in a conversation. One caveat: there’s a special place in hell for people who abbreviate ‘best wishes’ to ‘bw’.

  1. Process emails in 20 minute periods using ‘delete, delegate, do, defer’

This one is fun! The exact time period isn’t important and you should select one that ties in with the shape of your school day. The point is that it should be a short but useful period of time. If you have 45 minutes of non-contact time, use 15 minutes rather than 20; if you have an hour, you can use either 15 or 20 minutes. I enjoy the challenge of dispensing with a full inbox within this time period.

The ‘four Ds’ seem to be working quite well, although I find that I have to discipline myself over ‘do’/’defer’. I now try to ‘eat the frog’ and deal with the least palatable item first. I also have to watch that as I’m writing a response to someone, I don’t get distracted by what is coming into my inbox.

In general I have found that adopting this strategy – particularly 20 minutes of ‘do, delegate, delete, defer’ – has made a great improvement to my efficiency at dealing with email. It has also helped me procrastinate less. I don’t put things off (well less than I did) but deal with then straight away. Consequently, I don’t have to worry about unfinished messages and tasks building up.

One issue that arose in making these changes was the expectations of my colleagues. Previously, my continual email checking had given them the impression that I might respond at various times across the day. They therefore send me messages with the assumption that I was frequently checking my inbox. I didn’t let most people know that I was changing how I dealt with mail, but in retrospect this was a mistake. If colleagues have got used to you working in a particular way, let them know in advance that you are making a change. When I eventually did this, I received encouragement and support.

So, I recommend giving this a try if you’re finding that email is occupying too much of your precious time; it made a big difference for me.

Dr Rodger Caseby has worked for over 25 years in Oxfordshire schools and colleges, as a class teacher, Head of Department, and senior leader. He teaches psychology, biology, science, and computing. He is currently an education officer at Oxford University Museum of Natural History and teaches computing at Lord Williams’s School, Thame.

Rodger’s professional interests are Teaching and Learning, particularly in respect to inclusion, School Leadership, Professional development, Growth Mindset, and quality feedback. He is also interested in the link between staff wellbeing and student outcomes. Rodger is currently working on an HLF-funded project to increase participation, achievement and cultural capital among KS2 and KS3 children, especially those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

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