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After lots of struggles with the internet, almost overcoming an addiction to Facebook and a compulsive obsession to check my e-mail, I have finally reached an equilibrium that allows me to concentrate and be productive. My strategy is simple: I check and answer e-mails only three times a day: when I get to the lab in the morning, after lunch, and before leaving at night.

During the rest of the day, I use the computer just for work (I’m a bioinformatician) and keep my e-mail locked with an app. At home, I fully disconnect from my computer. Also, I don’t have a smartphone. I know this strategy seems a bit extreme these days when most people is connected 24/7, but it’s the only way I found to control myself and get my things done. I have the impression that everybody (especially in bioinformatics and including my PI) assumes I’m catching up with my e-mail almost instantly (for real, it isn’t rare to get answers from coworkers in matter of seconds).

For instance, one day my PI came kind of angry to my desk asking why I hadn’t gone to his office (or cancelled) if he had sent me and e-mail asking me to. Of course, the message had been sent but I hadn’t checked the e-mail. The follow up message “Could you please answer my previous e-mail?” isn’t uncommon in my inbox. So I’m starting to get worried that some people may get upset at me for being a late responder, especially people outside my lab, but at the same time I have to level out my internet usage to keep my addiction tamed.

In that context, I would like to known what is considered a timely response to an academic e-mail? If I can’t use my e-mail all the time, what strategies to use so I don’t miss crucial information? Should I let my PI and coworkers know about my previous problems with the internet?

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    Many ways to solve this problem. For example, filter incoming emails into separate folders and set up pop-up notifications for specific folders. – 101010111100 Mar 1 '17 at 0:01
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    This might be better on Workplace S.E. as it's not really academia-specific. That being said, another option might be adding an automated reply to your email account (if it's supported) saying something to the effect of, "Thank you for your message. I am unable to check my email except for early in the morning, at lunch, and before I leave for the day. If you need to reach me on an urgent matter, please contact me at XXX." – tonysdg Mar 1 '17 at 0:10
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    In most workplace settings (and certainly in academia), email is not considered a reliable medium for getting a hold of someone in a timeframe of hours, so your PI's expectations are unreasonable. However it is not unreasonable of him to want to have a way of reaching you reliably in such a timeframe. Do you have a (non-smart)phone? Give him your number and tell him to call/text for anything really urgent. Do the same for anyone else who has a legitimate potential need to reach you quickly. Problem solved. – Dan Romik Mar 1 '17 at 1:25
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    @tonysdg those autoreply messages are super annoying and would be a sure way for OP to alienate all his/her colleagues very quickly, so I think that's not a good idea. And this question is academia-specific since workplace norms differ quite a lot across industries. In academia one is typically not expected to be reading and responding to emails within hours, but in some non-academic workplaces that would not be the case. – Dan Romik Mar 1 '17 at 1:29
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    @CMosychuk emails requesting read receipts are rude, and read receipts don't work. See related discussion in this question. – Dan Romik Mar 1 '17 at 5:50
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What's considered a timely response depends on context. A response could be expected within hours, days, or weeks, depending on the email. What I think is important is that both parties are clear on expectations.

For normal academic activities, I would say checking emails twice a day is generally sufficient. Academics are often busy with classes and meetings throughout the day, so it's generally understood (at least between faculty, though not always by students) that you might not read or respond to an email within an hour.

However, it sounds like your PI expects you to check email more frequently than you do, so it's probably worthwhile mentioning that you only check email a few times a day (if asked why, just say so it doesn't distract you too much from your work). Then you can see if your PI is happy with calling you or seeing you in person if it's something urgent. If not, and PI really wants you to check email constantly, maybe you can set up something where you will only see emails from your PI (e.g., forward them to another email that you use for nothing else).

Similarly, if there are other people that seem to be expecting immediate responses from you, just maybe add a "PS" in your reply about how often you check email. I don't think most people will be upset if they know your habits.

  • Great answer, except for the sentence starting with "If not." – aparente001 Mar 2 '17 at 7:10
  • @aparente001 What would you say is a better response in that case? – Kimball Mar 2 '17 at 13:45
  • I'm just saying it's enough to inform the PI that OP doesn't use email like a telephone, and that the thing to use like a telephone is the phone in the lab. If there is no phone in the lab, and no pre-existing paging system, but the office and the lab are in the same building a walkie talkie or a wired intercom could be used. In the last resort, a beeper. – aparente001 Mar 2 '17 at 15:00
  • @aparente001 I think that's probably enough too, but in case the PI is adamant about lab members checking messages constantly, it might not be worth having to fight about it. – Kimball Mar 2 '17 at 17:46

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