Flag for follow up or dump the junk?

email overwhelmAre you overwhelmed by email? I know there are days that the flow of electronic information seems to be non-stop. I might not be the normal person though – but I also can’t imagine I’m the only academic who is managing more than one email account for various roles. I personally check with regularity five (yes, five) email accounts daily between my personal Gmail account, accounts for my adjunct teaching roles, and my full-time position with TAA.

Even after the SPAM filters and categorization tools inherent to the systems do their job of minimizing the amount of true “junk” that makes it through to my inbox, I am often interacting with upwards of 300-400 messages of some importance daily. So I wonder often, am I handling things effectively while trying to manage all of this electronic communication?

In the COVID-era of 2020, many academics have seen greater dependence on electronic forms of communication and while “inbox zero” is my ideal situation, I also realistically accept that it is not a practical one to maintain – at least on every account.

In this post, I want to share two simple ways to reduce the clutter and eliminate a large amount of potential distraction from your daily email routine that can make the task of keeping up with what’s most important easier, and allow you to plan times to deal with everything else later.

Flag for follow up

The first of the two methods I want to share today is the one I use most frequently – flag messages for follow up. Given that I often check messages on my phone (where all of my email comes to a single app rather than multiple browser tabs), I can quickly scan through messages and flag the ones that require more than a quick response.

For my Gmail-based accounts, this is represented as “Starred” messages and accessible in a quick link menu area in the browser. For my Outlook accounts, the browser-based interface shows these messages as highlighted items with flags and allows me to quickly filter my inbox for the flagged items.

As a self-proclaimed “electronic packrat” who likes to be able to access those email messages from 10 years ago when necessary, the flag gives a visual representation of importance in an otherwise overloaded account. As an added benefit, the flagged messages can serve as a to-do list or reminders of upcoming events based on items sent via email.

Dump the junk

The other method I use, particularly for accounts where much of the information received is either for short term consumption or immediate response and will have little value years, months, days, or even hours from now, is to dump the junk. Any administrative notices that are announcing information broadly to campus but doesn’t apply to my work – read and delete. Any reminder messages for something already on my calendar or in my messages flagged for follow up – read and delete. Any advertisements that made it past my SPAM filters and are of no interest – read and delete. You get the point.

For years, my countertop at home would become the pile of mail someone carried in from the box and sat down for someone else to deal with. The bills, the ads, etc. On the rare occasion that a card, letter, or payment was being expected, it might get searched for before unintentionally being added to the pile, but most of the pile was simply taking up space – and occasionally, the important stuff got lost in the abyss as well.

As a result, every day when the mail is brought in, the junk is trashed immediately. The bills that will be paid automatically or come in duplicate as an email message are trashed immediately. What’s left in the pile is the smaller set of important items worthy of further review, consideration, and use. While this habit took some time to develop, it does keep a cleaner house and the important stuff doesn’t get lost as easily any more.

Which is your preference?

Truth be told, I use a combination of these two methods to varying degrees with each of my accounts. My personal Gmail sees far more flagging and far less dumping as a catchall for many areas of my life, but even in the accounts where I dump the junk frequently, flagging the high important items or ones I know I need to follow up on later helps keep them in focus as well.

Once you have mastered one or both of these practices, I encourage you to explore additional organization features of your email system like folders, labels, autoresponders, and more, but for now, let’s look at ways to see what’s important amid the noise.


Eric Schmieder

Eric Schmieder is the Membership Marketing Manager for TAA. He has taught computer technology concepts to curriculum, continuing education, and corporate training students since 2001. A lifelong learner, teacher, and textbook author, Eric seeks to use technology in ways that improve results in his daily processes and in the lives of those he serves. His latest textbook, Web, Database, and Programming: A foundational approach to data-driven application development using HTML, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, MySQL, and PHP, First Edition, is available now through Sentia Publishing.