Correction Jan. 2, 2014: My ‘received email’ count was actually the sum of the number of sent and received emails. (My ‘sent’ folders are inside my local received folders, hence the double-counting.) I’ve fixed the numbers and graphs.
I’m far from the first person to note that emails are an incessant and almost overwhelming burden. There are so many of them, and it feels like the number is ever-increasing. Is it really? I noted the number of emails I’ve received and sent in each of the past eight years, and the answer is clearly yes:
The ‘received’ number doesn’t even count emails I immediately delete — spam from predatory journals, nonsensical conference announcements, shotgun book recommendations from Amazon, etc. — but only those that I save into folders. As you can see from the graph, this number crossed 9000 for the first time in 2014. Nine thousand! I sent close to 6000 emails — another personal record. Of course, I’m sure that there are lots of people who deal with many more emails than this. I’m not making any general claims, just thinking here about the trend illustrated above and what I can do about it. (You may wonder: Why was there a slight dip in 2013? I was on sabbatical Winter and Spring terms of that year — apparently I wasn’t very inaccessible.)
Why does this matter? Obviously, all these emails take time to deal with. How much? Most take about 2 minutes each (yes, I measured this), though many take much longer. Even as a severe underestimate, therefore, 9000 emails consumed about 300 hours of my time in 2014.
There are of course two ways to reduce this number. One is to get fewer emails, and the other is to spend less time reading and responding to them. The emails are just markers of some request or announcement that, in the days before email, would have been conveyed by some other medium or not conveyed at all. It’s hard to see how this number can be lessened, though I suppose if I respond to fewer emails, people might take the hint and stop writing to me.
The second issue is more interesting. It’s probably hard to spend much less time per email than I presently do, but, thinking about this a lot and reading various articles, I’ve realized that the problem with email is not just this two-minutes (or whatever), but rather the mental effort involved in getting to the two minutes in the first place. This isn’t an original thought. As written at the “Inbox zero” site, for example:
Just remember that every email you read, re-read, and re-re-re-re-re-read as it sits in that big dumb pile is actually incurring mental debt on your behalf. The interest you pay on email you’re reluctant to deal with is compounded every day and, in all likelihood, it’s what’s led you to feeling like such a useless slacker today. [Source: here and here.]
In other words, any email I don’t promptly deal with is one that I find myself thinking about again and again, each time it’s there in front of me. Even if it’s trivial to deal with — for example, some minor scheduling issue that would be solved if I had one more piece of input that I’m waiting for — this repetition is draining and distracting.
The solution is obvious and unoriginal (e.g. Inbox zero, noted above, and maybe The Tyranny of E-mail, which I read a very good excerpt from long ago): one should immediately process emails, reading them once and only once, and one should never “check” email (i.e. read without processing). I’ve tried this with mixed success in the past — it takes a lot of willpower to ignore the seeming urgency of email, and to resist the trivial sense of accomplishment that comes from reading or sending a message or two. And it does seem silly to consider it useful to “process” an email by moving the task it demands from my inbox to some other list of things-to-do. But it is useful, I think, since it separates the confusing dual roles of email as a source of new items and a list of existing tasks.
It’s clear that I need to muster the fortitude to deal better with email, saving myself both time and mental energy that could be better put to more productive, and more enjoyable, ends. That’s the task for 2015. My first tactic: to not look at my Inbox at all between about 7.30am (i.e. when I leave for work) and 11.30. Will angry mobs come track me down? Will I miss the news of important events? Probably no, and no. I feel more relaxed already. Happy 2015!