New School Year, New Habits: Let’s Start Here

Special / August 17, 2018

-by Terra Graves-

The beginning of a new school year is a great time to start new habits that will hopefully make your life easier.  On that note, let’s take a look at email. Email can be a significant drain on productivity and a source of stress if not managed properly. As a Flipped Learning practitioner, you began flipping to give yourself more time: more time to work one-on-one with your students and more time to create a more active learning environment. You don’t want to have that precious time taken up by wading through an endless sea of email.  Consider this image:

One of these situations puts me in a cold sweat while the other gives me a sense of accomplishment and calm.  It’s amazing to me that anyone can function with thousands of emails awaiting their attention. High numbers of unread, unanswered emails are just symptoms of a more significant problem (or perhaps just a ton of spam).

A neglected inbox could mean one or more of these are true for your situations:

  • You are out-of-the-loop with what is going on in your building.
  • You are missing valuable information about your students.
  • You are missing deadlines.
  • You are irritating coworkers/parents/students who are waiting for your response.

Below are six healthy email habits to help you start the year on the right foot.

Habit #1:  Shoot for Inbox Zero first thing in the morning and at the end of the day.

Some years ago, I created a habit of reaching “Inbox Zero” each day. Now, I realize that not everyone is as obsessive about this as I am, but there are many benefits to this.  First, I can quickly see what is junk and delete it. Second, once the junk is removed, I can see what needs a response or just needs to be “filed.” Third, I start and end my workday with a clean slate. As soon as I open my email in the morning, I quickly scan the list of senders and subject lines to see which ones are actionable, which ones I may want to read (I follow several blogs), and which ones are just trying to get me to buy something. (I buy a lot of things online.)

Habit #2:  Unsubscribe to the clutter.

To support your “Inbox Zero” goal, it’s helpful to reduce the amount of unnecessary email coming in.  If you have ever purchased anything online and forgotten to uncheck the “Yes, send me updates and specials…” box, you are probably receiving weekly or even daily emails that you may not want to read.  It just takes a couple of seconds to scroll down to the bottom of these emails and click on “Unsubscribe.” Your inbox will thank you later.

Habit #3:  Create folders in your email for easy retrieval.  

If you just leave everything in your Inbox that needs a response, they will all get buried under the neverending stream of new emails.

Here is a suggestion from Zach Hanlon for Fast Company

The system that saved my sanity requires only five folders:

  • Inbox: the inbox is a holding pen. Emails shouldn’t stay here any longer than it takes for you to file them into another folder. The exception to this rule is when you respond immediately and are waiting for an immediate response.
  • Today: Everything that requires a response today.
  • This Week: Everything that requires a response before the end of the week.
  • This Month/Quarter: – Everything that needs a longer-term response. Depending on your role, you may need a monthly folder. Others can operate on a quarterly basis.
  • FYI: Most items I receive are informational. If I think I may need to reference an email again, I’ll save it to this folder.

Here is another suggestion from Beth at Adventures of a Schoolmarm

If you need to respond to an email and can do it in less than two minutes, go ahead and respond right now. Then categorize accordingly.

The Simple, 3-folder System:

  • .Action
    • If the email requires you to take action of any kind, you’ll want to drag it into the Action folder. Having an Action folder keeps your important, time-sensitive, and task-specific emails from getting lost.
  • .Read 
    • If the email requires no action on your part but just needs to be read (and can be read at a later time), you’ll want to drag it into your Read folder. I love this because it helps me keep from losing emails that I want to read later. (As a side note, the ‘.’ in front of Action and Read keeps these folders at the top of your folders list since characters come before the letter ‘A’ in typical online alphabetizing.)
  • Archive
    • Most email clients have an Archive feature already. If you are looking for something specific in your Archive, just use the search function.

Habit #4:  Refrain from SENDING emails during evenings and weekends.  

As a professional learning facilitator, I feel the need to be available around the clock for teachers who are taking my online and blended classes.  When I am not facilitating classes, I am most likely creating new course content, or working on special district projects. I’m usually only an arm’s length from my laptop or my phone once I leave my office and until I go to bed.  Weekends are typically the same. I love my work, and I have a hard time NOT working.  

When I have an idea or a question, I usually don’t think twice about emailing a coworker or my boss regardless of the time of day or day of the week.  While I don’t necessarily expect a quick reply, I usually get one. It wasn’t until one of my coworkers made a comment that when I send emails in the evening or on weekends, it makes her feel like she needs to be doing more herself.  It was creating a lot of stress for her and I didn’t even know it.

This apparently is an issue for many people, and some administrators have created a policy around it.  See this memo shared by Natalie Barnes from Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland.  I think this policy is a great way to help teachers to find a work-life balance. If your administrator is telling you to stay away from email, it lets you off the hook. If there isn’t an official policy, teachers may not know what the expectation is, and this can lead to anxiety.  In this article by Stephanie Vazza for Fast Company, she shares the results of a study that showed the following:

The greater the amount of time spent on after-hours work, the less successful the employees were at detaching from work. This action translated into poorer work-family balance and even contributed to emotional exhaustion, which Becker says has been shown by prior research to affect job performance negatively.

“What we saw over time was that it’s the expectation that makes you exhausted,” says Becker. “It wasn’t about the time spent on email; it was assumed availability. Having an anticipation of work created a constant stressor.”

In the UK, Education Support Partnership debates the issue:

In our work with heads and school leaders, we often talk to them about what impact their email might have on their staff. Yes, it may be that 11 pm on a Sunday is the perfect time for them to catch up on their correspondence, but what does it feel for their colleague receiving that email?… The lesson is what may be good for you is not necessarily right for the person you are sending to.

Yet, what if that is the only time you have available to respond to your overflowing inbox? Why not write your emails then, save them as drafts and send them at a more reasonable time in the morning?  This may involve a little more planning and perhaps a delay in response times, but could it make for a more effective engagement with staff?

For me, I find it more stressful to leave emails unanswered until the workday.  I try not to initiate an email in the evenings or weekends, but I will typically respond to emails if I can answer a quick question or easily provide information.  A teacher just messaged me on Facebook messenger with a question, and it was quick and easy for me to help her. I think quick responses help build your reputation within the system.  If I had either not responded or told her I would look at it during work hours, this would create an entirely different reputation.

Habit #5:  Use BCC to avoid the “Reply All” nightmare.

If you are sending an email out to a large group of people, it is good email etiquette to put their names in the BCC (blind carbon copy) field. This not only protects the privacy of everyone’s email address, but it also protects the whole group from dealing with the “Reply All” nightmare.  It never fails. Someone sends an email to 40+ people congratulating someone on a new job, etc. They don’t use the BCC field. Let the endless “Reply All” messages begin!  After about five of these, someone feels the need to educate the group about NOT using “Reply All” while ironically using it. You get the idea. If you are unsure when to use BCC,  here’s a great flowchart to follow (and share with your coworkers).  I encourage you to remember BCC and think twice before you “Reply All.”  On that note, Outlook 2016’s default setting is “Reply All.” Whose brilliant idea was this?  I recommend you change that NOW. Here’s how:  

Habit #6:  Be intentional about when you check your email.

Renee Morad, with Forbes shares a study which found that every 45 minutes is a good time interval because it coincides with our attention span and the need for a break in between tasks.  If this seems to be TOO often, consider checking three times per day: first thing in the morning, right after lunch, and at the end of the workday. You may also want to think about turning off your pop-up notifications from your email as this can be distracting.  Here’s how to do that in Outlook:

Email and the Flipped Learning practitioner

As a Flipped Learning practitioner, your goal is to reach every student, in every class, every day and all of that student contact can lead to lots of emails.  Email management is unavoidable; however, it should never interfere with that goal. While your Flipped Learning digital environment is probably impeccably managed, your email situation may be impacting your productivity or with those with whom you work.  I encourage you to try to make these six habits a part of your new routine.

Terra Graves
Terra Graves
Terra has been an educator for over twenty years. She is the Project Coordinator/Administrator for the 21st Century Learning Department in Washoe County School District, NV. Prior to this position, she taught elementary and middle school, supported novice teachers as a full-time mentor, served as an Ed Tech Specialist, and a Program Specialist in the 21st Century Learning Department. Terra is Flipped Learning 3.0 Level-II Certified and a founding member of the FLGI International Faculty.

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on August 21, 2018

Thank you, Terra! I am starting right now to put your advice into practice. I’ll start by cleaning up all the clutter and check what needs answering, what filing for later reading and what filing for reference.

on August 23, 2018

wow Terra,
very useful article, thank you very much!!

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