I plan and control 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 even though it does not always go according to my plan. However:
- 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.
My contract is 35 hours a week (if you think it is funny, you may laugh). 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. In 2023, I am even Interim Director of COPL, which is no small task. I must also plan for the future and get funding for all these things. 35 hours is very short, it’s only 7 hours a day.
So let’s be clear: I do not check my email every day. I spend a lot of time with people, I prepare lectures and teaching videos, I work in the lab with students, I brainstorm on stuck projects or new projects, I write grants and papers. So let me tell you unambiguously right here, right now: everything else is more important than your email, whatever it may be. I don’t care what is in it: if you sent it by email, it’s obviously not that urgent.
So if I happen to get to my emails, it better be clear. It’s fine if it is short and relatively direct, as long as it is polite.
Email is the plague of the 21st century. I receive about 75 108 emails a day (see stats below). Of these, 10% are Mailing Lists (nothing to answer), many are useless Newsletters. Funny anecdote: I receive e-mails from 178 different people on Mailing lists from Laval University. Otherwise, 10% 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 to 40 emails that 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 (or anyone for that matter) to spend 20 hours of his 35 hours answering e-mails. Particularly true because if I did and did my teaching, that’s all I would do: teach my classes, and answer my e-mails. Answering all of one’s emails is like cleaning up a water spill with a fork: it’s simply impossible. If I have not responded to your email within 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 is a bloody question and 2) what the bloody question actually is. I often get answers to my own emails that I send to people who are much busier than me by summarizing, from the first 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 available” or : “I do not understand the assignment, the question # 1 is not clear and I do not do not have the lecture notes ” or even “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? Id there a list to that form you want me to fill? 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, I mean a real reference for me) when by? to whom do I send it? if you write to me from the finance department, could you just ask me for an account number to pay the bill?).
- I received 30,938 emails in 2022 (work and personal). It is an average of 108 emails per week day.
- On weekends, I received an average 26 emails, but in November and December before Christmas, it goes up to 60 per day (120 per week-end).
- The busiest day with 211 emails was Monday, December 12 2022, also known as “Panic Monday” because everyone wants to have their committee meeting in 2022, and there is only one week left.
- The second busiest days are November 16 and 17, where I received 200 and 193 emails. I suspect this is mostly Black Friday advertisements.
- The slowest day was Friday June 24th, or St-Jean-Baptiste day, with 21 emails.
- The second and third slowest days are December 30th (Getting ready to rumble!) and September 5th, Labour Day
- I received 2097 emails from students. 3 students wrote to me 41 times.
- I was the “to” recipient 25,846 times and cc:ed 4,726 times.
- 2,840 emails were from Université Laval mailing lists.
- 353 were from the Financial Systems (approvals).
You can also read “Daniel’s Dictionary of Academic Life“.
Daniel Côté, Updated on May 3rd 2023