My first encounter with email was as a spotty young undergraduate at the University of Adelaide.
At the time, access to the UNIX machines was difficult to come by, and largely restricted to computer science students, all of whom had to submit their code for inspection by tutors using the University email system. Obviously we became familiar with the concept quickly, because a large part of our passing grade was dependent on our assignments.
Back then we didn’t really have many people to email, other than the people in our lab, the computer marking system, and the postgraduate students to whom our souls were entrusted. If you really needed to talk to somebody, you just swung by their desk as you walked out to get a Coke. After all, none of us really left the lab very much.
It never really occurred to me at the time that email could become the monster that it is today; a bizarre version of the matrix, to whom we are all connected via dopamine sensors and a sugar drip. My phone buzzes, I pick it up and read the message, clear it from my queue, and repeat the process throughout the day, ad infiniteum; or perhaps ad nauseam?
Email as a concept first emerged in 1965 at the Massachusetts Institute of technology, with the advent of the program called mail, and the modification of the login screen to display the message “you have [urgent] mail”. This first attempt was largely file based, and did not allow for delivery of messages to other systems, so it did not resemble the Internet email we have today which has been variously tracked to Ray Tomlinson’s work within ARPANET, and the arrival of the “@” symbol.
Even in the beginning email was seen as something of a time waster, with management at MIT initially rejecting the concept as “a waste of resources”, before capitulating to end user demand. The rest, of course, is history.
As early as 1971, the first spam appeared, when a message was sent to each user of CTSS that stated in CAPS for urgency, “THERE IS NO WAY TO PEACE, PEACE IS THE WAY”, certainly an ironic moment, considering that Internet mail was funded and used by DARPA.
Since then, email has changed very little, and an early specification, written by Dave Crocker, remains remarkably accurate in today’s world of graphical user interfaces, high-speed networks, and cloud computing.
Mail is a simple concept. An author writes a message, affixes a recipient’s address and gives this to a delivery service, which moves the message to the recipient who reads, replies, files or deletes the message. – Dave Crocker
The concept is simple indeed, yet for end users, the concept of processing email does not scale, and in many ways it has had a deleterious effect on productivity and social interactions.
We all receive hundreds, if not thousands, of emails per day, and with each of them we must make one of the four decisions that Dave specified. Emails come at irregular intervals, usually in the midst of important work, and act as a constant irritant, an itch behind the ear, an endless distraction, and a defocusing force. It’s never clear which emails are truly important and which are simply FYI, but heaven forbid that we should not react instantly, lest our timeliness be seen as lacking, a sin in the modern corporate age.
“The internal stimulus is the one that gets you,” Rosen says. “On balance, [email is] maybe 10% pleasure and 90% fear of missing out.”
Aside from the sheer volume of emails that overwhelm most anybody’s system of prioritization, email suffers from another core deficit; it’s a terrible way to communicate.
It’s often said that email tends to be as inauthentic, as you might expect, given the presence of a permanent record, to which either party may refer several years later. Worse, email seems to be a way of forcing implicit agreement, whereby one party can pass “the ball” to another party, without even asking for their agreement. Consider for example, “Hi John – can you take this one?”, a question posed to you in front of everybody on the carbon copy, and potentially the blind carbon copy list, that you may not be able to refuse.
In the corporate world we often see email used as a form of ping-pong, where a request is made, clarification is sought, a response is provided, questions are asked of others, and eventually somebody else ends up on the hook. Some highly skilled individuals have made a career of such encounters, as if they were those incredible paddle wielding champions found in some oriental gymnasium, where the carbon copied crowds watch enthralled from the stands.
If I had my druthers, I would attempt to find a way to raise email from everybody’s existence, attempt to remove the “office memo gone cancerous, extended to home and everyday life”; drive back in time with Marty McFly and his DeLorean, and side with management at MIT. However, given the absence of a time machine, I find myself having to adapt, and am constantly on the lookout for new ways to deal with email. After all, if I cannot quit my addiction, I can at least reduce my dependence.
My first observation, and my stern recommendation, is to think twice before you send an email, because playing a forehand inevitably results in somebody else playing a backhand. Pick up the phone instead, try an instant messaging program, or even just text the other individual and set up a time for a call. Make a commitment that you will always consider who must be on your carbon copy lists, and keep them as short as possible. If you absolutely have to answer an email, try to slow down the rate of reply, in the hope that the sender will do the same.
Second, try to get all of your tasks out of email, because email offers none of the functions that a good task management system can provide you. There are literally hundreds of good software packages for task based work on the Internet, some with both mobile and web experiences, which provide due dates and group communication of statuses. Searching through your email will never be as efficient as these packages, and just using email will instinctively encourage you to send more email, which as we have observed is a zero-sum game.
Third, adopt a system of email management, and practice it religiously. I have become a true disciple of inbox zero, where I attempt to look at each email for the shortest period possible, before I make a decision to act upon it or delete it. When I choose action, I create a task in my task management system, and schedule a time to provide a detailed reply, that I try to communicate with the person who sent me the email. This doesn’t happen all that often, because the vast amount of email go straight into the trash.
Fourth, set up a VIP list on the phone, which will show emails from these people on the home screen. Forget email on your computer, except at specific times of the day when you have allocated time to work on cleaning up your email. The basic idea here is to set context, so that working on the computer is for long-running activities, and working on your phone is for short-term, easily dictated answers to people who you know expect rapid responses, while you take a break from the real work.
To conclude, email is a blessing and a curse, but more often a curse. It distracts the finest minds of our generation from valuable deep and intensive work, by dragging their attention around, like a bunch of children chasing a soccer ball; an addictive sugar drip that builds highly reinforced behavior, causing us to check our phones every moment of the day, lest something useful appear. If you would like to fully use your brain, you would do well to take up some of the suggestions I’ve made here in your work and personal life, and remember that your true value is to be measured in what you can create, not in your ability to play the eternal game of ping-pong.