Thursday, December 18, 2014

FAQ: How do I deal with expectations that I will instantly respond to incoming emails?

This post is the first of an intermittent series that will be based on questions I am asked frequently (hence, "FAQ") at workshops and by my coaching clients.  

Today's question (and one of the most common I'm asked):


Dear Susan,

How do you block off time to not answer emails so that you can do other work, and not be viewed as unresponsive?  I find that if you don’t respond to emails quickly, people get the impression you are not working, ignoring them or something negative along those lines.

Thanks, L


Dear L,

Great question.  The answer is complex.

Two truths: 

(1)  Responding to each email the instant it arrives is both impractical and impossible (because you are obviously not always at your email every minute).  

(2) Most important work requires focus. 

Good practice guidelines: 
  • Do email in batches rather than one at a time.
  • The frequency of batches depends on the type and volume of messages you receive: some people can get away with once a  day, while for others, every hour is required.  Three times a day works for most faculty members and business people.
  • When you are doing work that requires focus, you should remove email from your environment during the time you are working.

Despite these truths and good practice guidelines, many workplace cultures have evolved (devolved? ) to the point where an instant response is the expectation, and many of us have developed an understandable fear of delay.

Strategies to modify urgent expectations:

1. Let people you frequently correspond with know you will generally check your email every (one, two or three) hours, and if they need something more quickly, to please call.

2. Consider adding a statement about your usual response time to your email signature block.  You'll have to decide if that is acceptable in your workplace.

3. Only if you must:  Scan your messages every 30 minutes, looking only for urgent messages, based on the subject line.  

You could do this even while doing intensive work, if you follow the Pomodoro method of working for 25 minutes followed by a 5 minute break, and if you stick to dealing only with the urgent messages so that you don't get pulled off course.

4. If you are uncertain your supervisor will approve of these methods, have a talk with that person saying out that you would like to both be responsive AND still do high quality work, and ask if they have other approaches that might work.

And finally, its worth a try...

... to see if you can interest your boss and your colleagues in this topic. Suggest a group discussion about the pros and cons of expecting instant responses, and think about developing new norms for messages sent within the group.   

Best of luck,   Susan

What do you think? If any of you have other suggestions, or responses to the ones I've made, let me know.

And, if you want to pose your own question, just send it along in the comments, or write to me directly at  .

Thursday, February 20, 2014

"Writing is easy.... not !" Simple ideas that can help.

For many of us, the ability to produce quality publications on a regular schedule is critical to our career success and advancement.  But those "drops of blood" moments that characterize writer's block can be an obstacle.

As you go into the "spring semester," you may have writing goals on your list.  I thought a reminder of some strategies to overcome block might be helpful.

I had the opportunity earlier this year to write a short piece (400 words!) on writing for the newsletter of the AAMC's Group on Women in Medicine and Science (GWIMS).

Here it is:

"First, writing is hard.  Ernest Hemingway, when asked how to write a novel, famously replied "First you defrost the refrigerator." So don't beat yourself up. Instead, figure out strategies that help, and keep moving.  

               One effective strategy requires a paradigm shift... click here to keep reading.  

The article, titled "Scale Your Writer’s Block" is on page 3. 

When  you go to the newsletter, take a look at the rest of the articles which include:

  • Proactively Plan for Promotion: Considerations for Turning Your Clinical and Educational Work into Scholarship
  • Use Your Head, Follow Your Heart, and Persevere
  • Book Review: Quiet—The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

If you want a bit more detail about the writing strategies, see this slightly longer piece (1800 words) posted in my Article tab.  

Finally, if YOU have strategies for being a productive writer send them my way - I'm always on the look out for new ideas.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A New Year's message follow up: Sam's philosophy of the happy life

This morning in Iowa there was enough ice to delay the start of school by two hours and to convince me to work at home until things cleared up a bit.

I should have used the time to work on an upcoming talk, but instead took the easy way out and, violating my own rule, looked at my email first.

Then, going from bad to worse, I actually read each of the "optional reading" items:  blog posts, newsletters, and so forth, including the "abstracts" of every story contained in my daily message from the New York Times.

And that is how I came across the single most important thing I will read today, this week, and probably for a long time.

I found the obituary of Sam Berns.

After you read the obituary , watch Sam’s recent Tedx  talk.  

Do not watch the video until you are in place where you can weep uncontrollably.

But after the weeping ends, you will realize you have learned the secret to happiness.

Sam's goal was to change the world; each of us can help make that happen. 

Happy new year again.