Email overload

(The above image is from “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham:

I’ve been trying to do some reading over the last few mornings but I keep being distracted by emails. Like most people I seem to get too many emails and not enough useful ones. So I thought ‘what can I do to streamline my emails and make them more relevant & useful?’

Going through my inbox and having a bit of a filing session made me realise just how fundamental emails have become for doing research. Everything from quick notes to colleagues through to conference invites and journal alerts comes via email these days. But are we actually using emails as effectively as we could be? Judging by the frequency of complaints about having too many emails, I suspect not. So here are my personal top tips for effective use of email as a researcher.

  1. Getting important info via email

The first thing you need to consider is whether you are getting the important information in your University and in your field of research.

Hopefully the uni will have signed you up to the relevant email lists as soon as you joined, probably as well as a whole load of other useless junk (I’ve set up auto-deletes for a lot of this stuff – really slims down my inbox!). Make sure to check that you’re added to your research group’s mail list as well as the more generic stuff.

Once you’re all sorted with your uni comms, you need to think about getting access to the important info in your field. If you’re not already on at least one subject-specific email list, then I suggest you ask around your department and get yourself signed up to one or two of the most relevant lists.

For example, in my area of research the important email groups are ‘Cryolist’ (for all things ice related) and ‘Geomorphlist’ (for everything geomorphological). These lists provide me with new data sources, conference invites, job adverts and invitations to collaborate amongst a whole load of other stuff of varying usefulness. Yes you will get a lot of emails from lists like these but they really are the best way to ensure you know about anything new going on in your research area. And you never know you might see an advert for your dream postdoc!

By now you’ve probably joined a few learned societies – this is your chance to make sure that you’ve been included on their email lists too. This is particularly important for societies that offer funding opportunities because they will usually send out grant information and deadline reminders via email.

  1. Literature updates via email

Now you are in the know about the goings-on in your university and discipline, you need to ensure that you have a finger on the pulse of the literature. Regularly hitting ‘Web of Science’ for generic lit searches takes up a lot of time and will only get you so far in terms of finding out about new papers. Far better is the Zetoc ‘Journal alerts’ service.

This excellent service allows you to set up lists of journals that you are interested in. For example I have four lists:

  1. Cryosphere & glaciology (containing journals like Annals of Glaciology and Journal of Glaciology)
  2. Geomorphology & earth science (e.g. Boreas, Earth Science Reviews, Geomorphology)
  3. Quaternary (e.g. Quaternary Science Reviews and Journal of Quaternary Science)
  4. General geoscience & glam mags (e.g. Nature, Science, Progress in Physical Geography)
  5. Methods/ tech (e.g. Computers and Geoscience)

Every time a new journal issue is released in any of these lists I get an email containing the contents page, with links to read the abstracts and download the articles. Whilst this does give me a fair few emails, most only require a quick skim to ascertain that there is nothing interesting in that particular issue. But a couple of times a week I’ll spot an article with an interesting title, which I can then follow up and decide if I want to download and read the full text.

Journal alerts are by far the easiest way that I’ve found of keeping up with the literature and ensuring that you don’t miss key papers. One thing to be aware of is that Zetoc does not have every journal, although it does have most. This means that you may need to set up separate email alerts for one or two individual journals that are not in the Zetoc database.

  1. Making sense of all those emails

So you now know that you’re getting all the important info in your field, university, learned societies and that you’re up-to-date with the literature. If you’re anything like me all these lists add up to a lot of emails. And that’s before you’ve added in conversations with colleges, info about teaching, LinkedIn notifications or anything else. How are you going to wade through this sea of electronic communication? The answer is to set up a proper filing system.

It amazes me how few people do this. How do they ever sort the wheat from the email chaff? I have an extensive filing system that examines incoming mail and sorts it into the correct inbox folder. That way I can easily prioritise my email reading order – I know that anything in the ‘Journal alerts’ folder isn’t urgent whereas a new email in ‘Supervisor comms’ should probably be read sooner rather than later!

This filing system took maybe 30mins to set up initially, although I modify it regularly, and consists of a series of inbox folders and associated mail filters. All email clients, online or desktop, will have some way of doing this. It really is super easy and will save you so much time wading through a massive inbox. This is especially true if you’ve been away for a few days.

On a related note – it is also possible to set up auto-deletes using a similar method. I recommend doing this for anything that you regularly receive but don’t want, be it out-and-out spam or just pointless bureaucratic rubbish from the Faculty (I get a lot of this stuff and no one has noticed that I never reply!).

Do any of you have any good ways of managing your emails? Have I forgotten any useful email tips that you use to help your research? Let me know in the comments section below.

One thought on “Email overload

  1. Michael

    I found your post via an internet search I run each week looking for articles about Email Overload (my area of interest and actually the topic of my doctoral dissertation). Things to do to help reduce Email Overload include turning off all notifications, reducing the number of folders you utilize to file Emails and leverage the power of Emails “Search” tools, not relying on Email when other media methods are more appropriate, and using some targeted filters and rules to automatically route and categorize Emails for you. I have a number of suggestions of this type on my site (, so feel free to check it out if you have a chance. Perhaps some of the articles and resources can give you a hand. And feel free to spread around my little site with any of your colleagues. Can use all the interest I can get.
    Best of luck with your doctoral research.. hopefully, your research isn’t progressing at a glacial pace (.. sorry, couldn’t help the pun once I read your bio and area of research….)
    Cheers and best regards,
    Dr. Michael Einstein


Leave a Reply