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The Citizen

The Email Crisis at HKS: Are We Winning the Daily Battle Against Our Inbox?

E-Mail Flying Out of Computer at Man --- Image by © Credit:

By Ivan Rahman, MPA/MBA Stanford, 2019

Overwhelmed by homework this past week, I gave up on the battle to conquer my inbox. Having ignored my inbox for two days, it soared to 84 emails. Of those 84, one was from a professor. Unfortunately, he had given us a new assignment and asked us to submit it the next day. Did I see his email before class? No. Did I meet all my deadlines? No.

As HKS students, we are bombarded by emails daily. This and that event. This and that opportunity. This and that speaker. And don’t forget Canvas. Canvas is a beast of its own. These different types of emails add up. And they add up quickly.

Approximately 30 percent of my HKS experience consists of reading and responding to emails. That’s too big a percentage. But am I alone in experiencing a daily barrage of emails? Or do emails overwhelm other HKS students as well? If so, how do they maintain good email hygiene? Do most even have good email hygiene? To find out, I asked a few classmates.

On the low-volume end, there’s Sunila Chilukuri, a first-year MPP. She receives much fewer emails now than she did when she worked full-time. She finds her HKS inbox super manageable. “I check my emails three or four times a day,” she says. “Most of my inbox maintenance entails deleting things. I mark things as unread if I want to respond, but I don’t have a lot of unread messages. My inbox is usually close to zero. All in all, I spend 20 to 30 minutes a day dealing with my emails.”

That’s roughly three hours a week. I couldn’t help but wonder how Sunila accomplishes such a rare feat.

“Well, there isn’t that much I need to respond to nowadays,” she says. “For one, most of my emails revolve around planning events and I’m usually planning one or two events. Second, I’m not involved in the job search process as much as I should be.”

In the middle of the spectrum, there’s Wei Luo, a second-year MPP. “From the beginning of my time at HKS, I had everything forwarded to my Gmail account,” he says. “It’s easier to search and sort emails on Gmail. And I like to keep things super organized, since I receive 25-40 HKS-related emails on a typical weekday. The biggest culprit is Canvas. It sends a lot of emails. So, I end up spending one to two hours a day on HKS-related emails. That’s 10 to 15 hours per week.”

Impressed by his self-discipline, I asked Wei about his attitude towards emails.

“Emails are a necessary evil,” he says. “They’re important for staying abreast of all that’s happening on campus. Yes, they take away from the HKS experience, but I don’t see an alternative.”

Finally, at the upper end of the spectrum, there’s Jackie Rotman. She’s an MPA-MBA at HKS and Stanford. “I get around 80 emails a day,” says Jackie.

“Jesus Christ” were the first words that popped into my head upon hearing this. Luckily, Jackie has a secret weapon. She uses SaneBox. SaneBox filters your important emails from the unimportant ones. It’s the inbox management tool that helps Jackie stay afloat amid the tsunami of emails she gets daily.

“I don’t have the best email hygiene,” she says. “I sit down once a week to tackle my emails. But don’t get me wrong: I always read my emails every day on my iPhone, so I know if something is urgent. And if an email is urgent, I’ll respond right away. But the other ones can wait. Also, I mark everything as unread. Sometimes, I have something unread from a long time ago. For example, before you called, I replied to an email from last August.”

Like Wei, Jackie spends 10 to 15 hours per week on emails. But she’d like to tackle her emails in a timelier fashion. “I’m bad at it,” she says. “I don’t have a good relationship with my inbox.”

Given the ridiculousness of our inboxes as HKS students, what changes can help us win our day-to-day struggle against the volume of emails we receive? For one, HKS orientation leaders should make mandatory the session in which they teach incoming students time-tested strategies for tackling emails. Currently, it’s optional. Second, HKS should offer its students free access to the full suite of SaneBox services. Third, throughout the school year, HKS should offer students training on various strategies for mastering their inboxes. The HKS Communications Program offers ongoing training for communication-related skills. Why not do the same for email-related skills? While basic, these suggestions could help HKS students reclaim more of what’s most important to them during their finite time here. For me, that’s spending more time with my classmates. And, oh yeah: not missing any more deadlines.