The tyranny of email

I didn’t even know there was a book on the subject but I discovered it while I was doing a little bit of research, as I enjoy writing something original or at the very least if I need to use someone’s ideas, I want to make sure they are fully acknowledged. In my native language you would refer to this habit as to a “professional deformation”, which makes little or no sense in English but I still think sounds pretty much stronger than simply saying that is the result of being shaped by one’s profession.

Anyway, linguistic discussions aside, I am blogging about emails and how much our lives are now ruled by the perceived need to be available to everyone, including customers and colleagues, 24/7.

These days, whenever there is a problem with something we are instinctively drawn to blame technology. I can hear people saying that this situation has arisen as a result of modern smartphones (yet emails on the go really started with Blackberry’s devices). The implication is that as these devices become even more powerful we simply have to accept the fact that there is nothing we can do and that demands on our personal space will continue to increase. But up to which point should we put up with this? Who really switches the devices on? I have yet to come across a phone (smart or dumb) that switches itself on or off and you and I have to perform this operation, just in the same way as we need to perform the daily ritual of plugging them into the electricity socket to feed their voracious appetite for energy.

Stats that are already some years old reported that if we averaged out emails sent to each person every day this would amount to about 200. I have never counted the number of messages I have to deal each day, but I am sure it’s by now much more than that, especially if I have to add all the stuff that lands in my ‘notifications’ or ‘promotions’ box, which I need to clean up on a regular basis. Channels like Twitter have of course added to the burden, so my own estimation is that we are probably in the region of an average of 500 or so a day. Now, this is an amazing amount of “stuff”. I would dare anyone to say that they are able to digest such a gargantuan amount of data without causing themselves huge indigestion, or without being able to do anything else, except opening messages.

So we become selective. We try to prioritise and read messages that come from immediate family (in the personal inbox) first, and apply similar rules to work, reading first stuff that comes from important clients or the boss. But this presents a problem, as by being constantly online we then never really switch off, creating the expectation that we are in fact continuously on call, even when either we don’t need to be, or we would benefit from a break that could make us much more productive the following day perhaps.

Everyone knows that we should never reply to irate or complex messages in haste, but should leave them to stew for a few hours, or even a full day. Yet, regardless of what action we decided to take, once we had read a difficult message, we’d probably still be cogitating about it for hours, spoiling our lunch, coffee break, or even a whole weekend with the family. There is no going back once you have been at the receiving end of a less than pleasant message from someone, or have been confronted with a problem that needs addressing. Once you have opened it, you are totally hooked.

I don’t pretend to have a solution of course. But I felt we should take stock and ask ourselves a number of fundamental questions about the way in which we communicated, both in terms of quantity and, above all, quality. I know that some groups and organisation have tried to make sense of it all by publishing things like email charters, some large corporations have even gone beyond this, by banning email messages on specific days of the week. Although I quite like the automated message solution suggested by some (“Due to a technical problem I am unable to reply to emails for at least 24 hours – if your request is urgent please call me on…..”) I suspect this will simply create a backlog, and even generate more email traffic anyway (think of all those automated messages bouncing back and forth).

This leaves me with the only really possible solution: switch it off. When you know you have done all there is to do and you have already spent 14 hours at the office, give it a break, turn off notifications at least, regenerate your batteries, go for a walk (preferably where there is no signal) and don’t deal with those messages until you are back at work. Regain control of your life and leave the cyber stuff to robots. We are still to all intent and purpose humans.


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