Sciencewoman (aka Alice Pawley) bemoans the tyranny of email communication in a recent post, which inspired me to write up my own screed about email. Here’s a few guidelines for managing your email, coming from someone who gets at an absolute minimum 450 a day (384 just systems-related email).
First, you must remember what email *is*. Email is by definition asynchronous communication. When I write an email and send it, there is no guarantee that the recipient is going to (a) receive it immediately, (b) read it immediately after receiving it, or (c) act upon it immediately upon receiving it. Remember this. If you’re the sort of person who feels compelled to check email every 60 seconds, read every email the second it hits your inbox, and respond immediately… you’re a blanket and a basket short of a picnic. Learn to stop. Seek therapy. Email is not your problem. If you have a Blackberry *and* an iPhone, odds are pretty good you’re beyond technical help, you need psychiatric assistance.
Assuming you’re with me so far, here’s the next thing to remember – you do not want to receive email for things that are better handled synchronously. If you need a quick answer to a specific question, an IM client or that old-fashioned phone on your desk is a better tool for the job than your email client. “But Pat,” you’re thinking right now, “the great thing about email is that everything is in there. If I ever need to find it out again, I can just search my mail. If I call people or IM them, it won’t be in there for me to search!” Well, there are two answers to this.
The first is, you’re a damn Fascist (take that, Godwin! No Nazi reference here!). Ping me via IM, copy my reply, paste it into an email, and mail it to yourself if need be. You’re trying to communicate with ME, not with your future self. Sucking me into your email-storage-knowledge-management system for your own benefit is morally corrupt and bankrupt.
The second is, not only are you a Fascist, you’re also completely bonkers crazy. You are never going to be able to shove all the knowledge you need into your mail client, so stop trying now. Email is good for a lot of things, it is NOT your brain. There are somewhere between 1,000 and 200 kabillion other tools that you can use to help manage your own personal knowledge (like… say… a blog). Find some that work for you. Use them.
If someone insists on sending you “synchronous” sorts of emails, tell them to IM you or phone you and then don’t answer their email for a week. If the person in question is your boss and they won’t change, start looking for another job now. You don’t want to work for someone that is going to chain you to your email client, or you’re going to wind up carrying that iPhone and that Blackberry to deal with your boss, and then everyone you know is going to be suffering when you start expecting them and everyone else to use email synchronously. You’ve gone from being a simple victim to being a carrier, and you’re part of the problem… you’re carrying the black plague of the 21st century.
Finally (and here’s the biggie)… if you don’t read it, stop getting it at your primary email account. If you’re subscribed to an email list because you thought it might be a good idea to keep up with what’s going on in some online community somewhere, but you’re not actually reading 90% of the mail, GET OFF THE LIST, or get yourself a gmail account and dump all that mail there. If you’re on a discussion list and people aren’t discussing matters of importance, UNSUBSCRIBE. Tell your bank not to send you email (you’re most likely never going to be able to be sure that email from your bank is from your bank anyway, so don’t bother having them send you stuff you’re not going to read. Get off of alumni lists. If you have annoying friends or relatives that send you stuff you don’t read, tell them to stop sending it via email, show them how to set up a blog, and promise that you’ll subscribe to their RSS feed.
Email can be your friend. It enables lots of efficiencies that just won’t exist without it. But it’s a hammer, and it’s good for pounding nails.
Don’t try and use it as a bandsaw.