Normally, I don’t post about press releases that people email me. But in this case, the title, “Half of Americans Are Overwhelmed by E-Mail“, hit far too close to home. Having spent the day catching up on a week of email, I’m feeling more than a little overwhelmed. And it’s made me think hard about imposing more discipline on how I manage email.
I’m in no immediate danger of declaring email bankruptcy, but I have reached a point where my ad hoc approach to managing email–particularly to checking email as it arrives–costs me so much in productivity that I am considering reducing the frequency with which I check email to once or twice a day.
One might ask if there’s anything unique about email as a source of context switching. Don’t the same issues apply to news feeds, Twitter, etc? And there’s instant messenger–which is intended to trigger an immediate context switch. Why single out email?
My suspicion is that email satisfies an unholy mix of properties:
- A substantial fraction of email is personal and important, and there are no reliable automatic ways of identifying this fraction.
- The sender’s expectation of how long to wait for a response varies widely–from as soon as possible (e.g., one-line bodyless emails used as instant messages) to days or even indefinite (e.g., an FYI email that does not require a response).
- The typical sender sees email as the least invasive way to communicate, and therefore uses it as the default means of doing so.
The result: you (or at least I) end up with a relentless queue of email, faced with a choice of looking at all of it frequently, or likely deferring something urgent.
Of course, there are conventions, like marking emails as urgent, that are intended to sort out some of the above. But it isn’t realistic to expect everyone to use these consistently, at least not this late in the game.
Perhaps the answer is, as was suggested in an earlier post, to make it public. Specifically, Tantek suggests to “Move as much 1:1 communication into 1:many or 1:all mediums.” At some level, that is counterintuitive–after all, doesn’t that just make my problem everyone’s problem? But the key is that public communication sets different expectations. I might know the answer to your question, but so might any number of other people, so let’s balance the load.
It’s a nice idea, though it’s not clear how anarchic 1:many and 1:all mediums can accomplish this load balancing efficiently. But arguably that just an implementation detail. The first step is to calibrate the specificity of distribution to the specificity of the information / communication need.
Where does this leave me and others who are overwhelmed by email? For now, stuck with heuristics like disciplined management. For the long haul, advocating for more scalable social norms.
p.s. Ironically, this post is a public response to a private email.