If you feel overwhelmed by your inbox and meeting demands, you are likely to be dealing with the challenge of reactive communication. That is, every day, you open your inbox and find tens or even hundreds of requests for information and tasks. Like many people, you may start the day with a sense of dread. You might even find yourself working late the night before or start as soon as you wake up to get ahead of the deluge.
This post is written from the point of view of someone teaching and managing, but it can be work tweaking for research teams or even supervisory relationships. (For example, if your supervisor sends you too many emails asking for progress reports, you might choose to suggest a weekly or fortnightly progress newsletter instead).
I previously had a job where I got hundreds of emails every day. I wrote about it here and also here. I later got it down from about 200 to about 75 emails a day in a busy time, partly by using forms and shared documents (to schedule a meeting with me, or RSVP to an internal event), and partly by swapping from reactive communication to proactive communication, mostly through weekly newsletters.
These days I’d get about a quarter of the volume I used to get, which is a huge relief. But I still use email rules to help break up my inbox, and I still use newsletters.
I was chatting about the newsletter with various people on Twitter (particularly Dr Beck Wise and Dr Jo Van Every) and this post is mostly a summary of our conversation, as I realised I’d never documented my process!
Every Monday I send a newsletter full of resources and encouragement to the students at International House @unimelb where I run the academic program. This is the first week of exams, and the second week of lockdown, and I thought the resources might be useful more broadly 💚— Katherine Firth (@katrinafee) June 7, 2021
So every week, usually on a Monday, I send an email that covers everything that is coming up in the week. Yes, this takes an hour or so, but I schedule it in when it suits me in the pattern of my working day. An hour at 2pm is just part of the job, whereas an hour at 7.30am or pm extends my working hours and cuts into my self-care, commuity and leisure times.
In the newsletter, I have a few regular blocks:
- The subject line is consistent: the week of semester it is, and a description of the highlights of the email
- an introduction that situates the email in context (I acknowledge recent successes, COVID lockdowns, upcoming public holidays or just the weather, usually just one or two lines
- urgent or upcoming tasks
- important information, like FAQs or links to support services
- And then 3-4 fun, enjoyable or interesting things, usually based around nature, culture or the built environment.
- A reminder of who they should contact if they have further questions.
I have written similar newsletters as the senior academic in charge of a single subject, or as the manager of academic programs across a diverse cohort from undergrad to PhD, so you are likely to be able to to take this template and tweak it for your own setting. I do a version of this newsletter to my tutorial team on top of the one that goes to students for example.
Students and staff really appreciated these newsletters fora number of reasons. The super organised or slightly anxious people are reassured that they are on track. The people who only occasionally check their emails can easily find my email and know they will have all the relevant and important information in one place. It’s also reassuring to know that a senior member of the team is organised, available, and actually knows what they are doing!
By sending the information out ahead of time, I don’t find myself typing essentially the same information out to multiple different students. I also avoid the mess ups that can happen where I type out a quick response only to realise I’ve left out important information and need to send a follow up.
I rarely get students emailing me because they don’t know how to get help, and if they do email me, it’s either because I am the right right person or things are actually quite dire. Because I get fewer emails, I am less likely to miss the ones that I do need to respond to. And I can take the time to respond fully, carefully and in a timely manner.
I spend some time to make the newsletter fun, engaging and accurate. As a person who likes to write well, this makes email a joy-giving activity not a life-suck. Beck made a similar point:
I have a routine Monday (here's what's happening, here's what you have to do) and Friday (here's what happened, you're on track if, weekend fun) email in all my classes and I love doing them— Dr Beck Wise (@wisebeck) June 7, 2021
(I also like Beck’s idea of two emails. I have used this pattern in some roles and not others, but definitely consider it as an option!)
Basically… an email newsletter is like an introduction to your chapter or article. By answering lots of the questions upfront, you avoid the need for stressful revisions later down the track. Your readers feel confident in the journey you are both taking. And when your readers do have questions or feedback, it’s more likely to be relevant, helpful and targeted.
It’s not that I don’t want to get any emails, it’s just that I want email to be something where I feel like I can do a good job, I get to the routine work in good time, and have the capacity to respond to urgent or compassionate needs. I want to write fun, well-written emails, that people look forward to reading. It’s possible, and you might find it helpful too.
Do you use newsletters or similar proactive communication strategies? What worked for you? Join the conversation over on Twitter! (Or even send me an email via the form on the site!)