Most U.S. workers spend about three hours a day on email, researchers say, but many secondary school principals find that string of unread or actionable items never seems to end.

“I can be away from my email for a few hours and expect to have more than 50 to answer,” says Darren Ellwein, principal of Harrisburg South Middle School in South Dakota and an NASSP Digital Principal. Although many messages are not urgent (or even significant), they still need focus. “When that email comes in, we have this dopamine hit that tells us to check who or what it is,” he says.

This chronic societal problem may indeed be worse in schools, according to cognition expert Frank Sopper, president and CEO of OpenBook Learning, a company that produces educational software and advises executives on information management. Teachers are isolated and somewhat bound to their rooms and may need information for a class or for a quick response, he says, and schools are the type of institutions where a lot of information must be shared. “Most workers complain that they do nothing but answer emails and go to meetings. Well, having classes all day is like having a day full of meetings,” he says. “Then, in the other limited time they have, teachers face a lot of email.”

Principals, particularly, are often swamped with online communications—from teachers (potentially reporting about students or problems with their classroom or the job), other administrators and staff members, district officials, parents, and people in the community. And much of it seems urgent. “It can be consuming for them,” Sopper says.

Ellwein notes that parents today also expect more communication from school, often via the internet. “Educators care deeply about making people happy, and they don’t want to seem disengaged,” says Jethro Jones, principal at Tanana Middle School in Fairbanks, AK, and another NASSP Digital Principal. “So they are very responsive to email when they probably don’t have to be.”

But experts say principals can tame their own email obsession and improve how email is handled throughout their school.

Your Own Inbox

Stephen P. Santilli, principal at William Davies Middle School in Mays Landing, NJ, says it helps to get familiar with the platform for your email and the options it offers. This NASSP Digital Principal recommends setting up folders to file notes (including adding comments about things you need to spend more time on or those that aren’t crucial) and using filters or rules that allow some to flow immediately to certain locations. Most systems will allow you to archive messages, which will clear your inbox without deleting the material. You can also often star or flag critical emails and search for those later.

Some systems have an application that allows you to schedule action on an email for a later date, or bring it to your attention later (for example, Gmail users can download a free plugin called Boomerang that offers these features). Canned responses can also be helpful.

Experts say you should also unsubscribe to those things clogging your inbox regularly that you don’t need or read. Have school email come to your phone, Jones says, but don’t enable badges or notifications that prompt you to read something and “suck you in.” Some experts recommend executives read email three specific times each day. Others suggest that people use one longer session to respond per day—and they recommend even putting a note about when they’ll read and respond to emails in the signature lines. Emergencies can be communicated in other ways.

Regardless of the schedule, Sopper suggests administrators set aside time when they can look at email without interruption, letting others know that they would like to focus on just that. It is time consuming to keep returning to email and having to refocus, and it’s distracting in other work when email is on your mind, Sopper says.

Principals should not simply handle the “quick and easy” email and file those requiring more work until later. “That’s like storing up your daily exercise program and trying to do it all in one day at the end of the week,” he says. Save some time-consuming communication for later, but tackle some difficult ones immediately.

Principals also can use newsletters or blogs and refer people to them, developing an understanding among the staff that they will find key information there, Santilli says. Encourage others to add information, then perhaps send the staff brief reminders of that resource.

Hitting Send

David Allen, a consultant and author of the book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, says email is a critical tool that can and should be managed and processed quickly. He suggests that if principals organize their work email and respond immediately, and expect such behavior from others, email schoolwide will be reduced and more efficient. “You will create an approach that will trickle down,” he says. “After a while, people won’t give it another thought.”

Use these tips for sending email, and pass along these guidelines to your staff.

  • Use the subject line intentionally, Sopper says. “Make it clear exactly what the email is about. Use it as an efficient headline.” Avoid using “FYI” or generic words like “meeting” or “next steps” in the subject line.
  • Write the email like a news story, he says, with the key points—including action items and who does or doesn’t need to read further—right at the beginning. Be brief, and clearly explain the specific action readers should take.
  • Be careful about who you copy, and pause before you hit “reply all.” “The rule should be that you only include someone in an email when there is an actionable item for them,” Sopper says. Avoid unnecessary responses such as “OK” and “Thanks.”
  • Write one email for each topic. Sopper says while that might seem counterproductive, having short emails that cover individual topics for separate people are more efficient and can be read, responded to, and filed more easily than a long email on several topics involving several people.
  • Decide when it’s best to talk in person, Jones says, and don’t have difficult or easily confused conversations by email.
  • Develop “opt in” email groups where people can chat about particular topics without involving the entire school, Santilli says, and use the calendar functions with details about an event or meeting.
  • Post material publicly. Let people know its location and update the content regularly.

Jim Paterson is a writer based in Lewes, DE.

Making It Work

Employ these three steps when opening email:

  • Delete. Look through your inbox and delete any messages you don’t need. You ought to be able to discard 80 percent of them just by looking at the title and author, some experts say.
  • Respond. If you can reply to a message in a few minutes or less, do it. You’ll lose time trying to find the email later or recalling its contents and what you were going to say. Act on some that require a bit more time, and save some more complex notes for later. Don’t respond unless it is necessary.
  • File. For the rest of your messages, decide where they should go. Put them into folders, or use flags or labels to indicate their priority and when you need to respond.