Two things occurred to me a few weeks ago.
- I’ve been using email for 20 years.
- I’ve been using email for more than half my life.
I also learned that my birth is closer to World War II than it is to today. Or put another way: New Wave is chronologically closer to Big Band than it is to anything released today.
To most everyone I know, email is an intrinsic part of modern life, but it’s one that overwhelms us daily. As a result, there’s a lot of good advice for managing email. Back in “the day,” it used to be pretty easy to manage email when you had to sit at a computer, dial-in to a modem pool, connect to the “information superhighway“, and download your email to read it offline.1 It really was like checking a postal box: you did it on your time, only about once a day, and it didn’t overwhelm us.
But, of course, that’s not how we check email today. Email is always with us, and some of us are always on it. People in advertising and public relations, for example, seem to respond within nanoseconds to any message I send, and they get grumpy when I don’t reply for several minutes. That’s probably why the people I know in those fields seem perpetually burned out. Living and working that way would burn me out too because I get a decent volume of email. I would struggle to get any actual work done if I had to treat email like a telephone conversation without moments of silence. That’s why I turn off any notification alerts, push, and in some cases, even the unread-message badge in my mail client.
Fortunately, my work is of the nature where no one expects an immediate response over email. A few hours or even a day in responding is acceptable. Part of it is, I suspect, because in academic environments, stocked with aging faculty who refuse to retire, our institutional culture considers it a miracle that the old-school professors even check their email in the first place. A timely response is treated like a bonus.
That is why I’m advocating for a dedicated email appliance. I currently have four devices where I can check email, and at least one of those is always with me. Not only is the ability to check email always there, so is the temptation. And guess what? I check it constantly, even if I don’t have to. But if email were offloaded to a dedicated appliance or device, I would only check it when I had access to it.
Think about how you use an appliance or a single-purpose device. For example, you may own a dishwasher or a toenail clipper, and you probably use those regularly. But because you don’t have always those one-trick ponies with you, you’re not constantly washing your dishes or clipping your toenails (or at least you shouldn’t be). You wait to do those things, even if you have always have dishes to wash and regularly have a bothersome nail to clip. At the same, you probably don’t neglect the essential duties of washing dishes or trimming your nails. You just do it when you have the necessary tools and when it’s an opportune time. Email should be the same.
Getting an “email appliance” doesn’t require you to buy any new hardware, and you probably don’t even have to add or remove any software. All you have to do is treat email as something you do at a good place and certainly at the right time:
- Is it time to write a paper? Shut down all your other apps, maybe turn off WiFI, and write.
- Is it time for class? Shut down all your other apps, definitely turn off WiFI, and take notes.
- Is it time to prepare a spreadsheet? Ingest your data and start writing some VLOOKUPs and SUMIFs.
- Is it time to manage your task list? Yes, do that, and then get back to work.
- Is it time to check email? Yes, go ahead. Quit all your other apps, do your email, and only do your email.
By putting email at the end of this list, I’m not suggesting that email should be last thing you do when you have nothing else to do. (Sitting a bar and drinking by yourself is the last thing you should do after you’ve exhausted all other responsibilities and possible activities.)2 Instead, think of email as a thing you do, like washing dishes and trimming your nails, not a thing you always do.
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- Douglas Rushkoff, Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age, First Edition (New York: OR Books, 2010), 25–26. ↩
- Unless you’re expecting to meet someone. Or you are on vacation… because shirking your responsibilities is exactly what you should be doing. ↩