If there’s one notion that just doesn’t seem to die it’s that email is always a bane to someone’s productivity. Personally after using the Internet daily for the better part of 15 years I’ve gotten the whole email thing down pretty good and I don’t personally find it a distraction. Still no matter how many people I talk to they still seem to struggle with their inbox every day with people inundating them request after request or including them in a discussion that they just have to respond to. This is just one of the great many examples of people using technology to control someone else’s behaviour and it surprises me how many people still fall for it.
In the most traditional sense email was to be the electronic replacement for good old fashioned letters. In that sense they do carry a sense of urgency about them as when someone takes the time to write to you about something you can be sure that they want a response. However the low barrier to entry for writing an email as opposed to a real letter opened the floodgates for those who would not usually take the time to write and thus proceed to unleash their fury on unsuspecting victims. For myself I’ve noticed in a work place many people will often forego face to face contact with someone who’s mere meters away by using email instead, turning a 5 minute conversation into a 2 hour email ordeal that still doesn’t satisfy either party. This could also be due to my career being almost wholly contained within the public service, but I’ve seen similar behaviour at large private entities.
I think the problem many people have with electronic mediums is the urgency that they associate with it. When you get a real, physical letter from someone or some corporation there’s a real sense of “I have to do something about this” and that feeling translates into its electronic form. Seeing your inbox with dozens of emails left unread conveys that sense of leaving something important undone as each one of them is a call to your attention, begging for a response. The key is to recognise the low barrier of entry that electronic forms of communication have and to treat them as such. Of course simply ignoring your emails doesn’t solve the problem but establishing rules of engagement for people contacting you through various mediums ensures that you cut the unnecessary communications to a minimum, freeing yourself from their technological grasp.
I experienced this myself just recently when experimenting with “proper” Twitter use. The second I dropped my rules of engagement with the service was the second that I became a slave to it and the people on the other side. Sure this might be considered the norm when using Twitter but frankly the value I derive from the service is rendered moot when diverts my attention away from what I consider to be more valuable exploits. The same should be said for any form of communication you use, if the value you’re deriving or creating from using a communication method is less than the most optimal thing you could be doing in lieu of that, well maybe you should reconsider replying to those 50 emails that came in over lunch.
It’s gotten to the point where even whole companies are being founded on the idea of streamlining communication, like Xobni an email inbox searching tool. Google has also attempted to fix the email problem by developing the priority inbox which is a clever yet completely unnecessary tool. Whilst it does do a good job of showing me the emails I need to see I’d argue the problem is more that the ones it doesn’t promote simply did not need to be written. Thus we have a technological solution to a problem that’s entirely caused by its human users and would be better solved with a switch in mindset.
In the end it comes down to people letting themselves be controlled by something rather than the other way around. People know that if they want me to do something immediately they’ll come see me or phone me. If they want it done whenever I damn well feel like it they’ll send an email and no amount of important flags or all caps titles will change that. In the end it means people actually think about what they want before approaching me, meaning that the time I do actually spend communicating with them is productive and we can both get back to our priorities without too much interruption.