Solution Corner

E-mail: You Hold the Key to the Ball and Chain!

E-mail is not strictly a tool for science editors, but we are the beneficiaries of what it has to offer, and we bear the burden of dealing with it as much as anyone else. It is a blessing and a curse, the quintessential two-edged sword. We need never be completely out of touch with our colleagues, no matter where we go. And they need never be out of touch with us, even when we are on vacation, camping, or taking a cruise on the deep blue sea. Is that good or bad? That is a question for another time. What I’d like to focus on in this edition of “Solution Corner” is how people use e-mail, or are used by it, during working hours. I must admit here that I have a vested interest in exploring the strategies of others in getting the most out of e-mail without having it become a problem because I am, to some extent, a slave to it. I do all the wrong things, such as keeping my in-box queue displayed three feet from my face while trying to edit or write a paper. Although I know enough to mute the chirping sound that occurs whenever a new message hits my screen, I can still see the queue “jump” when a new entry is added out of my peripheral vision. There’s nothing to stop me from putting up my screen saver at such times so that I can’t see my e-mail, so why do I have such a hard time doing that? Why do I think I have to answer e-mails as quickly as possible when the people I write to don’t seem to share that compulsion? But this column is not about psychoanalyzing me, so I have asked several editing professionals about their strategies for effectively tending to e-mail without being consumed by it. We’d love to hear your e-mail strategies too, so please e-mail them (of course) to


  • Consider sending placeholder replies. I like to answer e-mail quickly, but sometimes doing so isn’t feasible. And sometimes it isn’t advisable—for example, if a matter could benefit from reflection, research, or consultation. In such cases, I like to send a “placeholder reply”, acknowledging receipt of the message and saying when a response will follow. That way, the sender knows that the message arrived and is being attended to. And I feel free to focus on other items for a while.
  • Be a pack rat. I keep much of the e-mail that I answer and almost all my responses. I consult this archive not only to review content of e-mail but also, for instance, to determine when interchanges occurred. Also, for such tasks as responding to recurring types of inquiries, I can easily cut, paste, and then adapt sections of e-mail messages that I sent previously.
  • Recognize that sometimes e-mail isn’t the best medium. The fact that an inquiry arrived by e-mail doesn’t mean that I must reply solely by e-mail. Some items are more effectively, more efficiently, or otherwise more appropriately addressed by telephone, in person, or through another medium. Therefore, sometimes my e-mail response consists mainly of, for example, a suggestion that we talk.

Barbara Gastel
Texas A&M University
College Station, Texas

Like any powerful tool—such as a circular saw or a backhoe—e-mail can be both useful and detrimental. Finding a balance can be difficult. My approach to effective management involves the mental division of e-mail into two functions: correspondence and information distribution. I treat them differently.

Correspondence from colleagues and coworkers is obviously a primary function of e-mail and one that occupies a sizable percentage of my day. Depending on the project that I am working on, the constant flow of incoming mail can be crucial to moving a project forward or it can be disruptive and demanding. My strategy is based on the reluctant acceptance that the human brain is not really designed for multitasking and that we are more effective and productive when we focus on one task at a time. An easy way to control e-mail overload and distraction is to disable the Outlook Desktop Alert function and answer e-mail at scheduled times or as I complete tasks. I stay available to the handful of people who may need immediate responses from me by using Skype instant messaging, which I leave minimized on the task bar.

Information distribution through e-mail is another useful function that I find increasingly valuable. For example, I subscribe to e-mail alerts from a number of LinkedIn Groups; from professional organizations, such as CSE, SSP, and ISMTE; and from discussion groups, such as Ebooks for Math and Science and STM Publishing Group. I also receive alerts from such blogs asThe Scholarly Kitchen and updates from such entities as the Association of Research Libraries and the Association of Learned and Professional Scholarly Publishers. By following these discussions and linking out to the sources cited, I have a powerful tool at my disposal for accessing information simply by subscribing to and managing e-mail alerts. But like correspondence, e-mail alerts can be relentless and intermittent as well. One option that works well for controlling alerts is to filter them by creating rules in Outlook. A rule can be set up to send the messages into designated e-mail folders on receipt. Another option available in LinkedIn is to change the delivery frequency of e-mail alerts from a daily digest to a weekly digest.

Tim Cross
Product Marketing Manager
Allen Press, Inc
Lawrence, Kansas

While I usually have my e-mail window open on my desktop during working hours, it is often hidden by other windows in which I am doing other tasks. That is a good thing because I don’t get distracted by every message that comes in. I do try to check it at least every hour, if not sooner (which is usually the case), even if I am focusing especially hard for a long time on another task. I usually have headphones plugged in to the computer but rarely use them. That prevents being distracted by beeps and bloops and random video ads in my browser that seem to start haphazardly on their own.

I also try to use subject or topic folders to file away messages that I have responded to or ones that I want to archive for reference later. If I’m doing a good job with that, my e-mail inbox will generally have about 50 messages in it. That is useful as a sort of running to-do list, and as I address them I can either file a message in the appropriate folder or trash it. One area I can improve in is using colored tags or labels to set priorities among and classify messages further, but so far I’ve been managing OK without that. And now I can file away the “Science Editor Solution Corner” e-mail. One less thing on the to-do list!

Michael A. Friedman
Journals Production Manager/
Technical Editor
American Meteorological Society
Boston, Massachusetts