An Email To Talk About Email Hell

I often say that my goal in life is to get to a place where I no longer need to check email. It’s a funny thing to say. It sounds like a pretty low bar. And just a weird thing to aspire towards. And yet, it’s true.

I’ve ranted about email for years and years at this point. I even quit using it for awhile when I was a reporter years ago as sort of a stunt — it was glooooorious. I want to get back to that world, but it’s next to impossible now in our current world, of course.

Anyway, people are sick of hearing me complain about email at this point — my wife, most especially — but it was top of mind this week reading two pieces by Cal Newport. He actually has a new book on the topic, which these posts are excerpted from (I have not yet read the book, nor do I know Cal — this isn’t SponCon).

In his “E-mail Is Making Us Miserable” piece for The New Yorker, we get gems like:

To study the effects of e-mail, a team led by researchers from the University of California, Irvine, hooked up forty office workers to wireless heart-rate monitors for around twelve days. They recorded the subjects’ heart-rate variability, a common technique for measuring mental stress. They also monitored the employees’ computer use, which allowed them to correlate e-mail checks with stress levels. What they found would not surprise the French. “The longer one spends on email in [a given] hour the higher is one’s stress for that hour,” the authors noted.

And:

Much in the same way that our attraction to food is coupled with the gnawing sensation of hunger in its absence, our instinct to connect is accompanied by an anxious unease when we neglect these interactions. This matters in the office, because an unfortunate side effect of overwhelming e-mail communication is that it constantly exposes you to exactly this form of social distress.

And:

A frenetic approach to professional collaboration generates messages faster than you can keep up—you finish one response only to find that three more have arrived in the interim, and, while you are at home at night, or over the weekend, or when you are on vacation, you cannot escape the awareness that the missives in your in-box are piling up ever thicker in your absence.

And finally:

To return to our motivating question, there are many reasons why e-mail makes us miserable. It creates, for example, a tortuous cycle that increases the amount of work on our plate while simultaneously thwarting, through constant distraction, our ability to accomplish it effectively.

All of the above pretty accurately conveys my feeling about email. It’s not that the format is evil, nor is any individual sending it, it’s that it wasn’t designed with the notion of what would happen with these messages sent and received in aggregate, at scale.

In another piece, this time for Wired, we get:

But at the same time, we feel increasingly overwhelmed and frustrated by the sheer number of hours we now spend engaging in this streamlined back-and-forth messaging. Once we removed the cost and friction from office interactions, the quantity of this chatter skyrocketed. According to various studies I gathered during my research, in 2005, we were sending and receiving 50 emails a day. In 2006 this jumped to 69. By 2011 it was 90. Today we send and receive an estimated 126 messages, checking our inboxes once every 6 minutes on average.

Utterly insanity. And still going up. That was something I used to get a lot: push back along the lines of “boo hoo, you’re too popular”, but that wasn’t it at all, I was just ahead of a curve that was and is coming for everyone.

The technologist’s response to email overload is to make these tools even faster. Gmail now autocompletes our sentences, saving typing time, while AI filters try to categorize and prioritize messages arriving too quickly for us to keep up with them on our own. But as the history of technology teaches us, making tasks faster does not by itself guarantee that we become more productive. It’s never been easier to send a report to a colleague, but at the same time, it’s never been harder to find the uninterrupted hours necessary to do a good job writing the report in the first place.

This is like the famous example of how when you expand the number of lanes on freeways to ease traffic, the traffic just expands to fill the new bandwidth. If you make email clients faster, we’ll just get more email even faster as more of it will be sent even faster. And so I wait.


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