When I went to college, email was brand new for me. I remember checking my email inbox multiple times a day in the hope that I would find an exciting message there. In many ways, this was a continuation of how I felt about my family’s (physical) mailbox when I was growing up. Every day, I was eager to get the mail to see if there is something interesting there. Rarely every was there mail for me (why should there!), so I started to write letters to an organization that was dedicated to the protection of birds, my favorite animals when I was a child. With my dad’s electric typewriter, I would write formal letters to ask questions about birds. It usually took a week or so to get a thick envelope back with an encouraging letter and some interesting booklets and copies of research publications. What a joy! With emails it was a bit different since as a student I did not find the time to engage people by email and thus the inbox was often empty.
Today, twenty years later, things are very different. For sure you will never hear me complain about a lack of emails that I receive. Quite the contrary, I am no exception in terms of the flood of (work) emails that I get every day. What might have stayed is the same is the thrill of opening the inbox to see if something magic has happened. Perhaps a paper we have submitted got accepted?! Perhaps I receive an invitation to give a keynote address at an international meeting?! This is one of the many reasons why most of us want to get email alerts and monitor our inbox(es) throughout the day, often also at night, on weekends, and during vacations. Yet, this attitude is bound to make us unhappy and unproductive.
It is hard to overstate how much email has changed our lives. The main point is that I can put something into your inbox in seconds that may take you hours to resolve. I can write “Please provide feedback”, attach a twenty-page draft and send it to ten people, creating a situation where I am stealing multiple hours from ten people, without any cost to me. This is grotesque but how this game works. Yet, most of us struggle to escape this game and find a healthy approach to email.
Let’s start with probing a bit deeper how many urgent and important messages I have received in my time as an academic so far. It is worth noting that email communication is a key pillar of the academic research environment. OK, let’s count. (1) The email telling me that I was admitted into graduate school. (2) The email telling me that I was hired as a postdoctoral fellow. (3) The finalized offer letter for my faculty position. One – two – three. These are important (and rather urgent) emails since they were of big impact for me and required a prompt response (1) Accepted – thanks. (2) Accepted – thanks. (3) Accepted – thanks. To be clear, I have received numerous emails that were urgent and not important. My favorite example: please review this document (only 10 pages!) by tomorrow. It is urgent since the sender has been procrastinating for weeks. Also, there are numerous important but not urgent messages (“We would like to invite you to give a keynote talk at [fill in fancy meeting] this fall”). See? The problem thus with treating emails (without discrimination) as urgent and, we are missing the chance to work on items that are truly important for reaching our goals.
Dealing with emails is often more than just work that does not advance you towards the realization of your visions and big goals. Rather, it can become a source of stress. I used to make the distinction between “looking at my emails” and “answering my emails.” I would open my inbox to quickly check if there is something that I felt like dealing with on the spot. Often, I would do that on my smartphone. Very few emails did get resolved when I looked at them. First, I did not have the right software tools and files available to truly process a message such that I could consider it to be resolved (and archived). Instead of forgetting the message until I found time to sit down at a computer, rather the message was playing games in my head and I would remember it and think about it multiple times until I finally sat down to deal with it properly. Just picture this. Anyone in the world with an internet account can easily find my work email address online and send me a wonderful but perhaps slightly lengthy email that includes requests that will get stuck in my head and ultimately rob me of a substantial amount of focused time. This gets compounded by the fact that many (including me for a long time) use their inbox as a never empty, stress inducing inbox. With this, anyone in the world can plant something directly onto my to-do list. Maintaining your own priorities that advance you and your work is very tough this way.
In the next post, I will provide you with a complete and practical strategy how to improve your life by dealing with email in a new way. Stay tuned.