Let me apologize in advance if my email(s) have wasted your time. If so, you have every right to be offended. I am trying very hard not to burden you with electronic clutter. So from now on, all email correspondence with me is likely to be highly probabilistic.
I made just one New Year resolution this January. I decided to slowly eradicate my use of email to the extent possible.
Since then, I have kept my counsel and assiduously refrained from sending an email unless it was absolutely necessary. I have been sending many emails to myself, reminders of various things to do, and so far, this seems to be the best use of email – as a portable to do list. I can access it from anywhere. But for communicating, I use it very little. I have been picking up the phone and calling a lot more, and its much more efficient.
Here are some reasons why I got fed up of email:
- It is a huge distraction. Every time an email comes in, it interrupts my train of thought. This is not good for my kind of work, for research requires immersion, and getting into the zone. Email makes this impossible.
- Email fools you into a false sense of productivity. Many of us work 8-hour days and spend 2-3 hours tending email. That is a horrific waste of time, yet, we all feel even more productive on the days we spent more than the average time on email. Remember the old days when we actually worked all 8 hours? And did not have the luxury to take 3 hours off for email? Since I reduced my email interaction, I have been much more productive.
- Email brings in a lot of freeloaders. I get at least one email a week from a student on some other campus asking me some long, detailed and convoluted question, expecting me to respond in detail, so that my answer may be cut and pasted to form a major portion of a term paper. No one would do anything like this if it were not free. Even though I know that no professor would respond to an unethical request such as this, it still results in disturbing one’s mood and leading to loss of productivity. Thus what is a free interaction from one viewpoint, turns out to be very costly from the other.
- The length of an email is inversely proportional to its value. This I think comes from the fact that the people with the most time to waste, will do so. Those who are busy and pressed for time, tend also to respect others’ time as well. I find it best when I get a short 3-4 line email focused on what is needed. Anything more seems better done on the phone.
- What goes around comes around: I have noticed that the more email I send, the more I receive. There are weeks when I just have not felt like sending email, and the inflow also seems to trickle to a smaller flow. So, if everyone only used email when absolutely essential, we would all be better off.
- Nothing goes wrong if email is responded to at the pace of snail mail. Try it, you will see. In fact, I find that the quality of my email correspondence has gone up as I have begun to reply when I felt more like attending to it, rather than doing so instantly.
- Email is not an integral part of my job. A research career has this huge plus – there is no real time need to respond to email. I can well understand people like lawyers, accountants, businessmen, corporate managers needing email to get their jobs done; they need perpetual connectivity. Well, thankfully, I do not. At teaching time, sure, students will email with questions, but immediate response only seems to get another, and does not foster learning or problem resolution. There seems to be some happy medium response time within which, left to his or her own devices, students will find the solution themselves. And this leads to deeper learning. It is very tempting to reply at once, especially since you feel gratified at having a good turnaround time, but it does not always help the learning process. So many times, I have been unable to respond in time, pressed by other demands, and in the interim, I get another email from the same student asking me to disregard the previous email for he/she has sorted out the quandary. Yet, there is a loss of student time, two wasted emails. To be fair, students are very respectful of my time, and maybe, should be more respectful of their own!
- Email ruins your writing style. It has a perverse code of its own. It would make an English schoolteacher cringe. It makes people bad readers and bad writers.
- Email steals vital downtime. Before, when we had a quiet moment we savored it. Remember transiting in airports, reading quietly, staring out the window? Now those days are gone. Now everyone in transit is rushing to check his or her emails. No wonder everyone is so stressed out; they do not get that much needed downtime anymore. “Oh, I have 5 minutes to spare, let me check my email – I feel so cool and accomplished.” Its the new treadmill.
- It’s become an excuse to avoid hard work. A recent study reported in the New York Times showed that people use email as an excuse to avoid hard tasks. If one is having a hard time concentrating on a focused task, a natural instinct is – “let me check my email” – so, please stop that, you know you can always find an email that will take you away from your main task. Is it any wonder that we get less done nowadays?
- I make mistakes in my email correspondence all the time. I am not sure why this is. One, it might be that in my hurry to clear the mail from my in box, I just “deal with it” and make an error in my impatience. Two, it may be that I know I can always send a correction just as quickly as I did the mistake. Three, it may just be that the medium fosters poor clarity of thought. Of these, my money is on the last one.
- Email is hard-to-jettison baggage. It keeps coming back. There are too many people who simply love replying with a couple of words, but attaching all the previous thirty or so emails. This back and forth correspondence has gone on long enough so that we remember all the past correspondence anyway. But no, we need to send it around yet one more time! There needs to be some discipline here. Yet Google is not institutionalizing the problem with its filing of “conversations” – who are they trying to fool? Is email a conversation? If so, then I have been talking to some people for months.
I now only read my email when I have to open it to send an important message to someone. Even reminder emails to myself do not need me to open my email. Since I am a Mac/Linux user, I can send myself an email from the command line without opening my email client. Because I know, once I open the mailbox, even Pandora could not have designed the trap better.
Actually, none of this is new. There are many others who, engaged in creative pursuits, have realized how detrimental email is. Donald Knuth has stopped using email altogether. See his web page for a honest admission of the time sink he needed to extricate himself from:
Neal Stephenson writes of the ill that follows from the use of electronic interruptions. He quotes Linda Stone, who has coined this as the problem of “continuous partial attention” which makes giving any one thing the full attention it deserves near
So, use email as one would use snail mail – only when necessary, and only when you know it will not be a waste of someone else’s time.
My biggest fear is that email is making the world superficially smaller, and draining all quality out of interpersonal communication. Now, instead of calling and really talking to someone, we shoot off an email and assuage our guilt by convincing ourselves we had a meaningful interaction.
I think I would rather not participate in this charade.