Feb 1, 2023

Taming your email inbox during graduate school

Overview: We hope that you find this post helpful to tame your email inboxes so that you can concentrate on the important component of graduate school- deep thinking.  This post highlights the tips and strategies used by practitioners of the productivity methodology “Getting Things Done” (GTD) for email. 

Photo by Jay Zhang on Unsplash
We have each found GTD to be useful as we lead academic research laboratories, teach classes, and take part in service for our scientific communities. While Dr. Kennedy just started implementing these techniques in 2022, David Drake has been using
GTD since 2003 to run his research group at the University of Iowa College of Dentistry.  Dr. Drake first came to Dr. Kennedy’s attention through his guest appearance on the Getting Things Done” podcast this January (2023) and he graciously responded to her plea to add his thoughts to this blog post.

Post Contributor(s): Drs. Marian Kennedy and David Drake



As graduate students and later in your career as a scientist, you will be acting in a range of roles.   Currently, you may have roles as a researcher, a student, a grader or teaching assistant. You may also have a range of roles in your personal life, such as parent, spouse, caretaker for the elderly, or athlete.  In each role that you fulfill, you will need to keep track and complete the associated commitments and activities.  A productivity methodology can help you ensure that your day-to-day actions align with your goals for each of your roles.

When we were graduate students, we both used paper to-do lists for our professional roles and personal tasks swam in our heads.   As we each matriculated into faculty positions, we each sought to make the system a little more leakproof. Getting Things Done (GTD), a productivity methodology which was invented by David Allen, turned out to meet our needs.  This practice involves moving to-do items from our brains and scrap paper and onto formal action and project lists.  More importantly, it provides a framework for taking vague inscriptions on our to-do lists into clarified action statements and offers suggestions on how to determine whether our to-dos belong on lists with short or long completion times.

Some of the most impactful changes we each implemented since starting GTD were how we handled out email inboxes.  An inbox is anywhere you get inputs from others and, as academics, we get the most requests through our institutional email.  If you struggle to keep up with email, here are some small changes that could have huge results. 


Designate time on your calendar for when you will and will not work on email:  Reading and responding to email takes time.  Given freedom, email can consume your entire day.   One way to tame email is to dedicate time at the beginning and end of your day to reading and responding to it.  At these times, take care of any email that requires less than a two-minute response and put any response that will take more than 2 minutes onto a to-do list. 


Use a “Waiting For” folder in your email system:  If you want to be sure you follow up a particular email request you have sent, you should flag those sent emails.  One way to flag those emails for later follow up is to include your own email address in the “bcc” field in your email and then create a rule in your email manager to sort any sent emails in which you are bcc’d into a separate folder. W appreciated David Allen’s suggestion to name the folder ‘@Waiting’.  Using @ at the beginning of the folder label will ensure it is at the top of an alphabetical list. Designate a time once or twice a week to review this email folder and (1) delete the email request if the person followed up, (2) send the person a reminder, or (3) leave it in the folder for future follow up.


Unsubscribe from unwanted emails:  It takes time to read every email that comes into your inbox.   To decrease the time that you spend on email, we suggest that you try to identify emails that you do not need.  If you get emails from listservs that are not pertinent to your current or long-term goals, unsubscribe!  It takes less than 20 seconds to unsubscribe from email.  Just scroll to the bottom of the email and there should be information on how to unsubscribe.  Typically, there is a link to complete the action.  If not, just politely email the sender and ask to be removed from the list. 


Use the delete button:  Reflect on whether an email is needed within your archive.  If you will not need to reference it later, delete it.  Here are some examples of what you can delete: (1) email announcing the speaker for this week’s seminar, (2) email from library with electronic copy of a requested article, (3) the invitation to a conference that you do not plan on attending. You should not delete emails related to your specific research project or academic progression.  For example, you will want to archive emails from research collaborators and any email confirming your thesis committees!   

Set up a folder system that allows you to find relevant emails for projects:  For any long-term project (classes, research grant, proposals, service project), create an email folder to track any important emails for that project.  Archive the folder once the project is complete. 


Write out email templates that you often use:  Write general responses that you might send in a format from which you can cut and paste them.  For example, if you are a teaching assistant, you probably get many requests about how to turn in work or where to find a recitation session.  So, draft a template that you can cut and paste into your email system any time you get a request.  Some templates Dr. Kennedy has found useful are response to students looking for funded graduate positions or asking for help with graduate school applications and out of office messages for different types of travel.  Another option is to store the boilerplate emails in Outlook Notes.


Use out of office messages when you are gone:  Letting others know when they can expect a reply is important.  So, when you will be out of the office, set an out of office auto response that includes contact information for people who can address questions in your absence.  One great hint that came from GTDnordic was to post the out of office response one day before you leave, and have it removed one day after you return.    That allocates time for you to prepare to leave instead of replying to email request your last day in the office and also sort through the emails when you return from travel before trying to triage new requests.


Consider if you really need to send an email:  We all get a lot of email.  So, take a moment to really think before you send one.  Will the email help you or your team get your job done?  If not, don’t send it.   You are saving someone else from making a decision of what to do with that email. 


Final thoughts:  You might wonder if you need to use a system like GTD as a graduate student.  The answer is no.  But having such a system is likely to lower your stress and improve your focus and time management. 

If you are interested in trying GTD, there are several pathways to learning about it.  One option is read a physical or electronic copy David Allen’s book. (Listening to it on Audible may be cumbersome because it includes sample lists.)  Another option is to listen to the many podcasts on the topic.  Dr. Kennedy’s favorite is the “Getting Things Done® Podcast from the GTDnordic” by Lars Rothschild Henriksen and Morten Røvik.  Dr. Drake was recently featured on “Getting Things Done,” a podcast by David Allen and other coaches (episode 191 in January 2023). 

Acknowledgements:  This blog post was edited by Kate Epstein of EpsteinWords. She specializes in editing and coaching for academics, and she can be reached at kate at epsteinwords.com.


About the authors:  David Drake is a professor of microbiology & infectious diseases within the University of Iowa College of Dentistry.  His work impacts our understanding of how the oral microbiome in young children evolves.