George Lucas Educational Foundation
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As teachers, we need to protect our professional time vigilantly. But email, that ravenous beast, can eagerly devour our prep periods and infringe on our time outside of school. When let loose, it can distance us from the important tasks of the profession like planning, grading, and developing ourselves professionally. If we are disciplined, though, email doesn't have to be a beast of burden -- we can use it as a weapon of efficiency, making us more frequent communicators with parents and administrators, more effective record keepers, and more focused in our growth.

Here are six strategies for reducing the flood of messages we receive and becoming more pragmatic with our replies, freeing time for more important endeavors.

1. Unsubscribe Ruthlessly

According to the email service provider Mail Chimp, only 18.6 percent of education newsletter emails are opened, and worse, 2.6 percent of links in those emails are clicked. We all do it -- subscribe to things that we don't bother to read. The first step to controlling email and mastering efficiency is to unsubscribe from every list that is not read regularly. A good rule of thumb is if you don't read, reply, or click on the links in the message 50 percent of the time, you should unsubscribe.

2. Limit Checks

Smartphones make us obsessive email checkers. According to a recent study, subjects checked their phones 34 times a day. All of those checks, which typically lasted from 30 seconds to ten minutes, can add up on their own. Those small chunks of time consumed by email are magnified by the added cost of lost momentum. In a article, Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a neurologist at UCSF, stated, "Whenever you take a break from what you're doing to unnecessarily check your email, studies show, it's hard to go back to your original task."

Here's how to beat it. Have set times each day that you check email, preferably twice. When you do check it, take one of three actions on each message -- delete, reply, or archive in a folder. This saves you from having to read everything. Do this, and you can have your inbox processed in under two minutes. Then it's just a matter of taking action in the appropriate folders. There will be more on the advantages of folders in a bit.

3. Purge Regularly

There is great satisfaction in achieving an empty inbox. It's a masterful feeling, knowing that you tamed your digital beast, not the other way around. To achieve this consistently, you must purge the old to make way for the new. Once a month, go through your email folders and let go of what's no longer relevant. The minutes from last month's faculty meeting -- gone. That notice from the main office three months ago about all employees needing to return their yearly attendance record -- sayonara. While this step is not a huge a time saver, it is important to do once a month because of its emotional weight.

4. Create Templates

Creating templates for letters and notifications is the easiest way to maximize your output and is probably the most effective time saver. Emails for Student of the Month, missing homework, and outstanding acts of kindness can be dashed off and sent in seconds if we have prepared templates. Just plug in names and customize when necessary.

Here is one that I use for those tricky questions about a low grade. I try to steer the conversation toward the learning and move it away from the number in the grade book. What's in bold is what I customize.

Dear Parent,
I am thankful that you emailed me concerning [name the student]'s grade on our most recent assignment. It provides me with a chance to share what we focused on in class, and it gives us the opportunity to work together to enhance [his/her] learning.
The assignment asked students to [identify the assignment], but it was really a chance for me to see how well the students gathered evidence from the text, developed a thesis, and organized their thoughts in a logical manner [or identify other learning skills assessed]. It was an important assignment because well-supported arguments are signs of analytical thinking and effective communication skills [or connect the learning skills to a broader context]. The grades were based on a rubric that was given out before the essay so that students would be clear on my expectations.
I’d like to see [name the student] master these skills. The feedback that [he/she] received on this assignment shows that we are not there yet, but there is room for growth. I will have a small, informal conference with [him/her] over the next few days and review the key learning skills and how we can close the gap.
Thank you for being so proactive and working with me in [name the student]'s best interest.

5. Filters Are Your Friend

You can reduce your screen time by using filters to make sure that only the messages that matter reach your inbox. Not only do filters remove spam or viruses, but they can also be configured to organize incoming email by prioritizing messages and sorting them into folders based on subject matter or other criteria.

Here is a video that shows you how to do it.

6. Folders Are Your Friend, Too

I have three basic email folders:

  1. Take Action: For things that come into my inbox that I can’t answer at the moment but need to when I have more time later.
  2. Parent Records: My district requires evidence of routine parent contact, so every email to and from a parent gets archived in one place.
  3. Administrative Records: Purchase orders, meeting notifications, and evaluations are important to keep for your records. However, be sure to clear out this folder periodically.

How do you manage your email? What are your best tips?

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Comments (7) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Jennifer Gonzalez's picture
Jennifer Gonzalez
Blogger at Cult of Pedagogy

These are really helpful reminders -- especially the one about only checking a few times a day. I am SO bad about that.

I love the template idea, too. I typically just copy and paste from previously sent emails, but now I'm wondering if there's a faster way to do that. Can you set up templates within email platforms, or do you do it in Word or somewhere else? Those [name the student] fields felt like a form you could fill out in on a different page and they would just automatically populate. If you know how to do that, please point me to the source. Thanks!!

Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY

Especially with access ubiquitous, it becomes impulsive to check email whenever and wherever. Yet, I did an experiment one day and added up the time I spent casually checking my email. I was embarrassed to realize how much time was being wasted. That, coupled with all the typos I produced by responding on the fly in a detracted manner, made me carve out specific times where I could read and respond mindfully to the emails that required my attention.

Russ Ewell's picture
Russ Ewell
Parent of 3 and Android + iOS Educational App Developer

Purge regularly! Thank you! This is something I will pass on to others, especially teachers, but you should know it is excellent for engineers as well.

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Edcamper, Former @Edutopia, Founder of Social Media Marketing Consultancy aimed at helping educational orgs.

Awesome post Brian. Some questions for you:

1) It sounds like you're a zero inbox kind of guy. That true? For example, do you check every email and either respond or file in "take action" or other folders to achieve a zero inbox? I could see this be incredibly freeing but also time consuming.

2) Do you recommend a chrome plugin that can help unsubscribing easier? I'm subscribed to far too many things but sadly I just dont have time to individually unsubscribe (which can sometimes amount to 10 clicks to unsubscribe).

Thanks again -- you've motivated me to tackle the email beast with a little confidence :)

Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY


I'll try to be as efficient as possible in my response to save both of us time. :)

1. I TRY to be a zero inbox kind of guy. In my previous email life I would read messages, move on to the next one without taking action, and let them all pile up in a chaotic inbox. There was no method to the madness, which made it hard to find anything days or weeks later. Even worse, I was forgetting to respond to people that I told myself I would at a more convenient time.

2. I don't use a Chrome plugin, I'm more of a "click here to unsubscribe" kind of guy. It can be time consuming with the two or three clicks, but it comes down to a basic cost-benefit analysis. It is wearisome to see junk still get through your filters time and time again. The only way to prevent it is to stop it altogether.

Kristen Franklin's picture
Kristen Franklin
Managing Editor at Edutopia

These tips are so timely. A longtime fan of inbox zero, I found - it's a service you allow to crawl your incoming mail, and you choose which emails get sorted into a custom daily digest. They handle the unsubscribing if you no longer wish to see the emails, suggest new emails that could be directed to the digest - or directed into your inbox. It's helped a lot.


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