Email is the plague

I plan my schedule: I do not react to what people want me to do, I act according to what I have to do. Every day, I have a plan. So:

  • It is not reasonable to expect an answer within an hour for an email.
  • It is not reasonable to expect an answer to a complex task in less than 24 hours.

The situation

My contract is 35 hours a week (cue: ah ah). I teach, I do research, I participate in the life of the University, my department, the COPL and the CERVO Brain Research Center by being director of different groups and subgroups. I must also plan for the future and get funding. 35 hours is very short, it’s only 7 hours a day.

Emails

Email is the plague of the 21st century. I receive about 75 emails a day. Of these, 30 are Mailing Lists (nothing to answer). Funny anecdote: I receive e-mails from 178 different people on Mailing lists from Laval University. Otherwise, 20 are e-mails where I am in cc’ed: if I am in cc: and no one addresses me, I will not answer. There are still 25 emails who require a reply. Suppose a question that is worth asking must demand at least 10 minutes to answer properly, that means that I should allocate at least 4 hours per day to read and answer my emails (or 20 hours a week ). Nobody wants a Professor to spend 20 hours of his 35 hours answering e-mails. Particular true because if I did and did my teaching, that’s all I would do: give my classes, answer the students and answer my e-mails. Answering all of his emails is like picking up a mess with his hands: it’s simply impossible. If I have not responded to your email in 1 week, assume it has been forgotten and contact me again. I sometimes try to catch up with my emails on Sunday night, if I’m not tired.

But what is a good email?

A good e-mail has a line with an explanatory subject: “Meeting request for summer internship”, “Reminder: meeting this afternoon at 3PM at local POP-2165”. The email is polite but brief. The sender who wants an answer quickly summarizes the question so that the reader can understand 1) that it’s a question and 2) what’s the question. I often get answers to my own emails that I send to people who are much busier than me by summarizing, from the front line, what I expect from them with this email. Better yet, I will see them in person. An email that is too long probably requires a meeting in person.

A bad email

A bad email is an open question: “We should really meet for the project, let me know when you are free” or : “I do not understand the assignment, the question # 1 is not clear and I do not do not have the lecture notes “or finally “Come back to me with the list of important things and the milestones for the project so that I can move forward”. My favorites: “Please fill out the form which is available on our website as soon as possible”. Which one? due by? To whom do I send it? If you contacted me, could you have filled some of it for me? or “Do not forget to pay the bill recently sent to you for service charges”. Which email? Are you the one who sent it? (hint: no) A reference number? (hint: not an internal reference  in the accounting system that I do not have access to, a real reference for me) when by? to whom do I send it? if you write me from the finance department, could you just ask me for an account number to pay the bill?).

You can also read “Daniel’s Dictionary of Academic Life“.

Daniel Côté, August 12th, 2019

Daniel Côté's laboratory at Neurophotonics Center, Centre de Recherche de l'Institut Universitaire en Santé Mentale de Québec