Over the past few years, I have come to a growing and inescapable conclusion: I now hate email.
Given the fact that, among my close family and friends, I am still probably the most wired-in person they know, it may sound as if I’ve gone off some deep end. Maybe you’re thinking this makes me a cultural luddite.
I don’t care.
But the facts of the matter are that I have grown to hate email for three basic reasons:
1) There’s too much of it, and
2) People don’t know how to use it, and
3) It can be so easily misunderstood in ways that face-to-face communication almost never is.
For months now, I believed I was alone in this growing distaste. But then, several weeks back, I stumbled on blogger and time management guru Tim Ferriss, author of the book “The Four Hour Workweek.” Tim hates email so much that he’s all but eliminated it from his life.
And he’s the most “wired” guy that most of his friends know. Inspired by him, I quickly used some of what I’ll write below in a sermon.
Then, yesterday, that hip and happenin’ cultural barometer known as the Dallas Morning News (turn on your sarcasm detectors) posted a story, titled “Overloaded in boxes lead to email backlash.” And I suddenly knew that email-hate was a true current phenomenon in our cultural zeitgeist.
So, dear readers, if you feel the same growing anger about email that I do, know this:
— You are not alone.
— There are things you can do about it.
the DMN story sums it up, this was bound to happen, just the way it eventually happened to other cultural phenoms that we now love to hate…
“It happened with cigarettes. It happened with red meat. And carbs. And SUVs.
And now it’s happening with e-mail. It’s lost its cool factor.
According to a growing number of academics, “technologists” and psychologists, our dependence on e-mail – the need to attend to a constantly beeping in-box – is creating anxiety in the workplace, adversely affecting the ability to focus, diminishing productivity and threatening family bonds….”
“Behind the e-mail backlash is a growing perception that, despite its convenience and everything positive it has brought to work and social situations, the tide has turned: The once-friendly e-mail is now a monster that’s threatening to ruin our lives…”
“As legions of “knowledge workers” vacation this summer, the question of whether to take along the BlackBerry is more complicated than ever.
Do, and the vacation might not be such a vacation after all. Don’t, and you’re likely to return to an in-box that takes hours to clear or, worse, the dreaded “your mailbox has exceeded its limits” message.
Long hailed as a timesaving boon, e-mail has taken over the workplace like a midsummer algae bloom.”
I know this is how I feel.
I’ve long prided myself in the fact that I can get email at the church, at home, and on my Treo. In fact, I first bought a Treo because it was the first device I knew that allowed me to download email straight to it. I’m talkin’ the early Treos, when they were still called a “Visors,” and when they actually had an outside manufacturer that came up with a tiny plug-in modem. It wasn’t wireless at all. But it was email on my mobile device. And I thought I was too cool for school.
Now, everybody has that and millions think it cool. And right at the time they’re coming to this conclusion, I’m rethinking the whole idea altogether.
Part of it, as I said above, is because of how much email there is. I get a lot of email. To manage it, I’ve pushed it to several email addresses. There’s a personal address I use, for family, friends, and music. There’s a “music list” address, for various email lists associated with music. There’s a church address. There’s a “church list” address for my Lectionary Group, and others. There’s a “contact” address for the various websites I manage. (Luckily a catch-all for all of them…) And there’s even the address Southwestern Bell gave us years ago when we signed up, that we hardly ever use.
Counting all these email boxes, and not counting spam, I probably get between 250-300 email messages a day.
You don’t want to know.
“Oh, there’s an easy solution!!!” you gleefully say. “Just fully engage your spam filters, and use a good filing system for inbound messages!!!”
Been there. Done that. Could write the manual.
At a certain point that doesn’t help either, just because of sheer volume. I’m subscribed to several email lists that, frankly, I hardly check anymore. There’s just no time. Sadly, I have real email friends out there that I hardly correspond with anymore.
But my hate for email also also has to do with how people use it, and how people expect you to respond. Increasingly, I have found that folks use email to write loooong, I mean seriously long, “War and Peace” length correspondence.
They send these two to five page documents, with a first line that says something like, “Review this and get back to me sometime later today.”
In fact, studies have shown that more than 60 percent of all people assume that they will get a response to any email they send –of any length, and any complexity– within 24-hours.
But frankly, sometime the needed response is too complex to dash off in two minutes or less. The writer has spent hours composing their thoughts, and then expects you to magically respond within five minutes.
And there’s one more thing –and this is where I get dangerously close to psychoanalyzing above my “paygrade”– I also think that email rewards those who are somewhat “obsessive/compulsive.” They can dash out these long, copious emails, without breaking a sweat. If it’s a group setting, they can respond before anyone else, and they often expect you to as well.
Which has led me to conclude that email rewards a certain “obsessive/compulsive” personality. And that certainly can’t be good for the rest of us.
Which leads to the final reason for why I hate email: It can be so easily misunderstood.
How many times have you written a friend or family member, and had your words taken out of context? How many times have you emailed a group and had your best joke totally missed?
It happens all the time. That’s because words on page are always subject to the interpretation, and creative imagination, of the reader. Whether we’re reading a novel or a note from our email group on “Creative Basketweaving,” we use far more of our imagination to interpret a writer’s intent than we do for, say, face-to-face communication or a even phone conversation. And our own interpretation and imaginative assumptions are interesting, but often not at all what the writer had in mind. (Fine, if you’re reading a novel. Not so hot, if you’re reading a coworkers email).
Even a phone conversation, while not real “face-to-face,” contains ways to interpret the sender’s meaning…their inflection…their tone….the anger, joy, or boredom in their voice.
None of that is readily available via email. And that’s why email is so often misinterpreted. That’s why you end up spending even more time explaining yourself, responding to those who have misunderstood you, then you would have if you’d just picked up the phone in the first place.
AOL did a survey about a year ago, and found some astounding things about American’s and their growing email addiction:
86% percent admit to checking email on vacation
43% of those who have portable devices such as Blackberries or Sidekicks say they “keep the device nearby when they are sleeping to listen for incoming mail.”
59% of people with portable email devices admit that they check their email the moment that a new message comes in.
One in four take their email device to bed with them each night.
37% of people admit to checking email while they are driving
53% of people admit to checking email in the bathroom!
And…12% of people check email in church
(so that’s what they’re doing…)
But does all this email obsession get us anywhere?
Well, in truth, Tim Ferriss cites studies that show the exact opposite:
“In 2005, a psychiatrist at King’s College in London administered IQ tests to three groups: the first did nothing but perform the IQ test, the second was distracted by e-mail and ringing phones, and the third was stoned on marijuana. Not surprisingly, the first group did better than the other two by an average of 10 points. The e-mailers, on the other hands, did worse than the stoners by an average of 6 points.”
I first stumbled on Tim Ferriss via Derek Siver’s blog. (A great blog for any indie musician, btw…) Tim has two whole categories on his blog devoted to these kinds of issues. One category is called “The Low Information Diet: Selective Ignorance.” My favorite is “Email Detox.”
They’re worth surfing around. There are a lot of ideas for reducing email clutter in your life, and for simplifying things. (Wasn’t email supposed to do that for us?)
One of the simplest and most elegant solutions is to just check email twice a day: once in the morning, and once in the late afternoon.
Why not? Tim says. Look, you’re not the President of the United States. You’ve never yet gotten an email where the fate of the Western world hangs on your response. Let’s be realistic here. Ask yourself: if your senders don’t get a response from you until much later in the day, what’s will really go wrong?
He has nine other very practical ideas for reducing the volume of information and clutter in our lives, and you can read them here. He calls them “Nine Not-to-Do Habits.”
One of his ideas is to go without email for one day a week. Actually, several major companies have instituted this already….US Cellular….Intel…and others.
Interesting: so, technology companies are banning email for one whole day, so employees will actually talk to each other…
We might want to pause and think about that one, huh?
One other idea –which I read on Tim’s blog but cannot get my fingers on right now– is a rule one company instituted for email exchanges. If employees “A” and “B” are talking about work, and if the “back and forth” between them goes on for two full rounds (two sends, and two receives), then they are required to stop using email, pick up the phone, and (gasp!) talk to each other.
I LOVE this one. One of my own biggest frustrations about email is that it makes simple conversations that used to take seconds via phone last for hours and days.
Well, hope you find something to like in this post.
If you’ve been finding your own growing hate of email growing, know that you are not alone. If you’ve got your own solutions, feel free to share them. And if you’d like to chat about it, that’s fine.
But, please, just leave me a comment.
Don’t send me an email.