Surviving “the Tyranny of E-mail”

Like a plague of locusts, they give us no rest. They gobble our irreplaceable asset: our time. The faster we swat them away, the faster they arrive. Our modern locust plague is email.

Fortunately, I found The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox by John Freeman a week ago at the Harvard Bookstore, one of the few surviving independent bookstores in Cambridge, MA. Alas, the book was discounted to $5.99 — which probably means that it is on remainder. That is a shame, for it is a rich and thoughtful book, mixing history, analysis, outrage, and remedy.

(Photo: Jon Gosier)

The beginning of wisdom, it was said, is to call things by their right names. By that venerable standard, this is a wise book. Freeman doesn’t write ubiquitous mush like, “Of course email has done so much for us. It is just another tool. And tools are neither good nor bad. A knife can spread butter or kill someone. What matters is how the tool is used.” Perhaps because he also lives in London, Freeman doesn’t fall prey to that particularly American myth of technological neutrality. Rather, he says it straight: Email is robbing us of our lives. It is speeding up life and work far beyond what promotes human flourishing (another ancient concept that we have mostly lost). And he says it poetically:

Meanwhile, on flows the e-mail down the screen, like a current with riptides and swirls…You paddle frantically and seem to get nowhere. Checking e-mail on vacation, at night, in the car, at the bus stop, or in the grocery store, as handheld devices have made possible in recent years—and as many people do—is like trying to stick a finger in a dam. The flow just finds a new crack, a new fissure, and before long it’s pouring out again.

(The problem of checking email on vacation is mitigated in America, the only industrialized country with no legally mandated vacation time.)

As I look back on the 27 past years that I’ve had an email address, I shudder to think how much I have let myself be robbed of, how much serious writing I have forgone while typing thousands of short replies, and how much human contact I lost while fending off the electronic locusts.

It’s not only me. Coffee shops, once places to read, write, and people watch, are now filled with, in one of Freeman’s images that stick with me, the “continuous, insect-like patter of typing.” An auto-reply from a colleague at Harvard was revealing about the damage done by email: “I am neither reading nor storing any email, as I am undertaking a number of projects that require my full attention.” (my emphasis) With the email locusts in full flight, only mediocre-attention projects survive the plague.

The Tyranny of E-mail, unlike many books detailing the sad state of the world, offers a substantial and effective set of remedies. Perhaps the most important is not to make more locusts: “Don’t send!” Don’t send an email unless you absolutely have to use that form of communication. Don’t CC or BCC unless you have to. A second remedy is: “Read email only twice a day.” These remedies support each other. I have adopted them, extending the second to reading email once a day or even on alternate days.

Freeman mentions an email autoresponder that sends back:

Due to a technical issue, there is a possibility I may never see your email. If it is important, please call me at xxx xxx-xxxx.

Sorry for any inconvenience.

It is polite and constructive, and it encourages human contact.

My eventual goal is to follow in the footsteps of my old teacher Donald Knuth, whose missive on email Freeman quotes:

I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I’d used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime.

So, if you send an email to me and don’t receive a quick answer, or you receive a polite request to post me a paper letter, see it as progress!

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  1. Travis says:

    It always surprises me that economists always assume that if it weren’t for some intervening distraction or hindrance, they would be more productive and/or prolific.

    For some reason I doubt the elimination of a single distraction would have much of an impact on productivity. Even if you cut out all of the distractions, such as email, anything on the internet, noise, co-workers, etc. you would still have plenty of ways to not be productive, and plenty of other intervening causes you could potentially blame your sloth on.

    Also I find it weird that anyone would feel compelled to spend more than 15 minutes a day on email that doesn’t really matter. Perhaps it’s a generation gap thing, but the only time I end up spending more than a couple minutes reading email is when I need to get an important message to someone, or I need to get important information from someone else. Forwards get skimmed or ignored. Unsolicited email gets ignored always. That sort of tip doesn’t seem that revolutionary to me.

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  2. Rachelle says:

    I would argue that email IS a tool, and it IS about how you use it. For example, I talk to my parents at least 1-2 times per week on the phone, for a significant chunk of time. That is valuable communication, and I wouldn’t want to replace those talks with long emails. And no, I do not mind if the call is unexpected. If I am truly too busy to answer (screaming child, etc.), I will call back later. BUT I also email my parents as well. If I want to know cousin Bob’s address or her coffee cake recipe, this is something that wouldn’t work in a phone call anyway, as she won’t have it handy. So I can email my mother, she can look up the information when she has the time, and send it back at her leisure. I don’t expect her to drop everything the moment she gets the email, and it’s OK if I don’t get her email until the day after she sends it. No tyranny involved.

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  3. Cor Aquilonis says:

    My trick with email is to not read them unless they need to be read. I check personal email and RSS feeds once per day – in the morning. I’m done in under 20 minutes. Anything important can be taken care of in 20 minutes (st least, in my life,) and the rest can wait – permanently, if need be.

    Skimming is your friend.

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  4. Sam Prince says:

    While I agree that email is often an unnecessary distraction, your suggested measures of checking it less frequently and sending less email to less people work fairly well.

    What doesn’t really work is the approach of setting an autoresponder to divert people to your phone. Email is certainly not perfect, but at least it doesn’t demand almost all your attention on another person’s schedule in the same way a constantly ringing phone does.

    I would include creative use of filters and disabling any email notifications of any kind (alert sounds, popups, systray icons…) as further counterattacks against the locusts.

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    • Eric says:

      My problem is not with email per se. It’s definitely made communication easier, especially on a mass scale. I like being able to check and reply to messages when I see fit.

      My problem, which is perhaps a problem with all forms of instant messaging is that there is now the assumption that we all check our emails continuously throughout the day. As a person who does not want (and cannot afford) a smartphone, my email checking is limited to certain times of the day when I can log on to the internet.

      What I don’t understand is when ‘the rule’ changed from email being an optional convenience to being something that everyone *must* take care of every 5 minutes of every day. The worst part is when I make a plan to meet someone, or an appointment is decided upon, but then there is always the possibility of someone nixing it at the last second via an email. When I arrive to said rendez-vous as planned, for some reason I’M the one who failed because I didn’t happen to check my email account during that time!

      My other pet peeve occurs a lot at the university where I study. For some reason, it’s easier (and preferable) reach a prof via email, rather than going to the place where they are paid to work! Is there any other job in the world where someone could get away with not being at their workplace during work hours? If I want to go to EmailU, I’ll do a correspondence course, thank you!

      I’m not saying that email is bad, but that our etiquitte is lagging behind. And also an email conversation is not the same as face-to-face dialogue. Email is great for mass messaging, but no substitute for real conversation, especially in a university setting!

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  5. Scott says:

    Problem: too many emails. Solution offered: read email twice a day.

    That worked when I was in the academy. As a grad student I purposefully checked email when I arrived at lab, at lunch, when I left, and before I went to bed. Since I alone worked on my project, I held no one back and was held back by no one. Sure paper editing took time, but we needed to put deep thought in articles that might get read by six people.

    Then I got a real job as a consultant. I can imagine the guffaws of laughter (before the pink slip) if I missed meetings, failed to provide information, and left my co-workers and clients in the lurch because I resolved to read email only twice (or even four times) a day! Being an email snob holds back your team, your client and yourself.

    And for those that prefer the phone, remember a phonecall is a drop-everything time period. You can choose emails to respond to and prioritize, calls offer no such benefit.

    Real solutions being tried out offer some hope. Email currency is the idea that everyone starts with a limited amount of email points. Sending email (including cc’s) up the hierarchy costs more than sending it down the hierarchy (ie you use up more of your currency to email your boss then your peer). In trials in actual corporate environments it reduced the number of emails, the number of people on an email, and increased the amount of facetime people had to fix an issue (ie, instead of bouncing 4-5 emails back and forth, with everyones’ bosses cc’d, the parties just met and hashed it out).

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