Email

Short version

I receive a lot of email. In order to avoid spending all my time checking, I have email delivered to my inbox a couple of times per day at specific times (kind of like old-fashioned mail). If it’s urgent, give me a call instead of emailing.

Long version

I receive a lot of email, and it’s making me spend too much time in my inbox. Time that I need for writing papers, being the best possible teacher, a thoughtful advisor, and a decent husband and father. So recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to get better at not spending so much time checking email.

Part of the problem is the checking itself. Here’s a quote from a recent article in The Atlantic

People are, clearly, consumed by their inboxes. On average, people check their email about 77 times per day, according to Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine. (On the high end, people checked their inboxes 373 times a day.) “The more email people do, the lower is their assessed productivity,” Mark said in the podcast. “[and] the lower is their positive mood at the end of the day.”

The reason email is a problem has to do with the design of the protocol. That email is delivered on someone else’s schedule, not yours.

There’s lots of research to support that checking phones/email is as addictive as playing slot machines (they get you because the human brain cannot resist intermittent variable rewards). Tristan Harris, who’s a design ethicist, has written a great post about this on Medium. That post is in large part responsible for setting me on this path (and I’ve stolen the picture below from him, hope it’s OK).

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Harris has written a beautiful manifesto on creating technology designed to help us spend our time well rather than distracting us. Pretty cool, right. I’ve reproduced it below (you can find out all about Harris’ efforts here: http://timewellspent.io/

We live in an attention economy, where products or websites win by getting our time. What starts as a competition for our attention, devolves into a race to the bottom of the brain stem to seduce our deepest instincts.

We’re left constantly distracted.

Either we connect, but constantly get sucked in. Or we unplug, but lose out on all the benefits of technology completely.

We need to restore choice.

We believe in the possibility of better design, that lets us connect without getting sucked in. And disconnect, without missing something important.

And we believe in the possibility of an economy that’s built to help us spend time well, where products compete for net positive contributions to our lives.

Let’s start that conversation now.

I agree wholeheartedly, so I’ve decided to only check a few times per day.

Oh, and one more thing

I’m also playing around with the idea of adapting “professorial email sorting” as described by Cal Newport in his excellent & inspiring book Deep Work. He writes

As a graduate student at MIT, I had the opportunity to interact with famous academics. In doing so, I noticed that many shared a fascinating and somewhat rare approach to e-mail: Their default behavior when receiving an e-mail message is to not respond.

Over time, I learned the philosophy driving this behavior: When it comes to e-mail, they believed, it’s the sender’s responsibility to convince the receiver that a reply is worthwhile. If you didn’t make a convincing case and sufficiently minimize the effort required by the professor to respond, you didn’t get a response.

For example, the following e-mail would likely not generate a reply with many of the famous names at the Institute:

Hi professor. I’d love to stop by sometime to talk about <topic X>. Are you available?

Responding to this message requires too much work (“Are you available?” is too vague to be answered quickly). Also, there’s no attempt to argue that this chat is worth the professor’s time. With these critiques in mind, here’s a version of the same message that would be more likely to generate a reply:

Hi professor. I’m working on a project similar to <topic X> with my advisor, <professor Y>. Is it okay if I stop by in the last fifteen minutes of your office hours on Thursday to explain what we’re up to in more detail and see if it might complement your current project?

Unlike the first message, this one makes a clear case for why this meeting makes sense and minimizes the effort needed from the receiver to respond.

This tip asks that you replicate, to the extent feasible in your professional context, this professorial ambivalence to e-mail. To help you in this effort, try applying the following three rules to sort through which messages require a response and which do not.

Professorial E-mail Sorting: Do not reply to an e-mail message if any of the following applies:

  • It’s ambiguous or otherwise makes it hard for you to generate a reasonable response.
  • It’s not a question or proposal that interests you.
  • Nothing really good would happen if you did respond and nothing really bad would happen if you didn’t.

In all cases, there are many obvious exceptions. If an ambiguous message about a project you don’t care about comes from your company’s CEO, for example, you’ll respond. But looking beyond these exceptions, this professorial approach asks you to become way more ruthless when deciding whether or not to click “reply.”

So please don’t be too upset if I don’t get back to you right away. (Just trying to fight back against the email monster).