on the problem of email

February 16th, 2015 | written by:
in: Culture, Tech

I’m fairly convinced that email is the single biggest distraction – waste of time – that I have. It kills by productivity. Having to constantly check it, with reminders and notifications popping up int he corner of my screen, the noise, the ever-growing inbox number… it’s a distraction to say the least.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love email. I love the fact that you can write a letter and instantly send it to its destination, something that used to take days and even weeks. Its an amazing thing. Like letters, though, there should be no expectation that it is responded to immediately. I don’t sit around waiting to answer emails.

My workday begins by drinking coffee and reading through the emails that I received overnight and in the morning. Checking my email is part of my routine. Once I’ve put together my plan for the day, I can get to work. It’s a simple way to get my mind ready and working, and it gives me a small sense of accomplishment while I’m still waking up. After kickstarting my day, though, email tends to piss me off. Yes, multi-tasking is an important skill to maintain, however, stopping what I’m doing and breaking my concentration every five or ten minutes destroys any productivity I might have had.

I bet you’re asking, “But why don’t you just ignore the email until you have a good place to stop?”

That is a very good question. The problem is that email has to be read. There really is no way around that. And no, you can’t just look at the subject line. It doesn’t always – ever – describe what the email is really about. Nor does it tell you how urgent the message is. Do you need to act now? Or can it wait a couple of hours until you have time? Who knows. You’ll have to read the whole thing. (Have you ever put off reading an email because it didn’t sound important, then realize they needed an immediate answer? Yeah, that’s why)

Now that you’ve opened the email and read it, you’ve lost your train of thought. You can now get back to what you were working on and spend ten or fifteen minutes getting back on track.

Email being an interruption isn’t the whole problem. Part of the problem is with those people that are sending the emails. While there are those people that will write and send emails with an informative subject and thought-out message body, there are three distinct, annoying senders:

The Serial Messager.
This person doesn’t send you one email. They send you an endless stream of consciousness. Sometimes you get complete sentences, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you get more than one thought, mostly you get the same thought spread across three or four emails. Every few minutes. If they were writing you letters, they would write one, seal it in an envelope and stamp it, then realize they had something else they wanted to say and write another letter. Next we have the Novelist.

The Novelist.
The Novelist is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Instead of writing parts of a thought. They write you a seemingly endless message when three or four sentences will do. At least they get you information that you need. Along with plenty that you don’t. And probably some information you didn’t ever want. Last, but not least, is the Drifter.

The Drifter.
The Drifter is the most interesting of the annoying senders. They have the curious distinction of never actually giving you any information, or at least useful information. Usually, they will email you about something, but never tell you what it is or ask their question. Other times, when you ask them a question, they will give you a completely unrelated answer.

I believe that emails should be planned, proofread, and edited before they are sent. There is nothing worse than reading your typos when you get a response. They should also be limited to (or at least a response should not be expected outside of) a few regular times of day. That is, of course, as long as it isn’t urgent. For my sanity, at least, I propose that people observe the following schedule:

Beginning of the Day
People tend to begin their workday with something productive, but not overly stimulating. Email is perfect for this. It doesn’t require a lot of intense analytical thinking and you can usually get it out of the way over your morning coffee (at least I do).

The middle of the day is a natural stopping point. You’ve already gotten whatever task you’re working on to a good stopping point because you’re ready to eat after thinking about lunch all morning (well, thats what I do at any rate). However, you could always look over your email if its not quite time to eat, or you’re waiting for someone else to finish so you can go get lunch.

End of the Day
It’s 4:45pm. You finished your work, but it’s not quite time to go home yet. You have other things you could be doing, but there’s not enough time to get into another project. There’s always email! You can easily answer a few emails or send a few out (and of course you’re not expecting an answer to them until the following morning).

I feel like over the last two, or so, decades of email, we’ve lost sight of what email really is: an alternative to sending a letter. It’s treated as a form of instant messaging, even though we don’t pay attention to it in that way (not to mention that there are applications that are for instant messaging). If we return to using email more like an actual letter, I – for one – would be much happier and I think that many other people would be, too.


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