Control. Halt. Delete

Soul-crushing email causes stress and slows work. Oliver Double proposes some ways to cut the burden. Email-free Friday, anyone?

December 8, 2011

I spend up to four hours of my working day dealing with email, and I can't help wondering whether it really is time well spent.

Email is probably the biggest source of stress in my life. It's the treacle I have to wade through before getting to more important - and rewarding - aspects of my job. Email creates a sense of high responsibility and yet, at the same time, passivity. It's always requests from other people; and because you can't control when these requests will come, you can never plan your time. Email makes you react instead of just act. Email is a crusher of joy and job satisfaction, and - just like painting the Forth Bridge - it's a job you can never complete. You clear your in-box, but still it keeps dripping back in. Drip, drip, drip...

I regularly rant to friends and colleagues about how much I hate email, and they all feel the same. Everybody hates it - but there's nothing to be done about it, right?

Wrong.

If we all work together, we can try to reduce its corrosive effects. For a start, let's agree that the following types of messages, demands and behaviours should never get as far as the "Send" button:

• There's a new policy that means you all have to do exactly what I tell you, immediately

• I need everybody in the entire university to check something for me, immediately - even though there's already a system in place for checking this

• Here's a book-length essay about something that annoys me, and it's clearly unsuited to and inappropriate for the medium of email. But still, please take several hours to read my rant, and then respond to it point by point

• I'm copying you into a massive email chain that's already been doing the rounds for a few weeks. Now it's your turn to get involved - which means that you must scroll right down to the bottom and read your way all the way back up if you want to have the slightest clue what it's all about. When you've done that, please respond to my point

• I'm going to copy about eight people into this email even though only one person needs to know this

• Better still, I'm going to copy it to a list with hundreds of recipients because I really enjoy splashing my views about willy-nilly

• Somebody's asked me about my availability for a meeting, but rather than reply to that person alone, I'm going to hit "Reply All" so that everybody gets a copy of my message - for no apparent reason

• I enjoy delighting everyone with provocative emails that, however jokey their tone, are guaranteed to provoke several outraged responses, all of which will be copied to everyone and help to keep their in-boxes nice and full

• Everybody must be congratulated publicly. Rather than send someone an individual email to compliment them or - God forbid - say it in person, I'll copy everybody into the message so everyone can see how generous I am with my praise.

Now, if you read any of those and thought to yourself, "But wait a minute, I do that", then you're part of the problem. Why not become part of the solution and stop sending out that type of email?

But individuals can only do so much. Here are some policies that universities could implement to improve efficiency and - let's face it - improve the quality of all of our lives:

Email-free Fridays. Emails are banned on Fridays. This means we all get a day off from it, and our in-boxes are far less full when we get to work on Monday mornings

Email-free evenings and weekends. Staff are forbidden from sending or receiving emails outside normal working hours. This should improve everybody's mental health and reduce the number of emails we face when we get to work every morning

30-email limit. Nobody may send more than 30 emails a day, and each recipient counts as one email. In other words, if you copy a message to eight people, that's eight of your daily ration of emails used up. Only 22 left now - careful how you use them!

30-email limit (alternative version). Staff are forbidden from dealing with more than 30 emails a day. Which ones are important enough for you to open? Which will you send straight to your Deleted Items box?

150-word limit. No email may be more than 150 words long. If you can't make your point within that limit, you're using the wrong means of communication. Try a letter, a phone call or a face-to-face conversation

Go nuclear. Up to 1997 or so, people ran universities using phones, printed memos, letters and meetings. It worked for decades. Why not go back to it and ban email altogether? I have a sneaking suspicion that without the medium of email, many of the more annoying aspects of our job would just evaporate. After all, it's much harder to micromanage and impose a relentlessly demanding audit culture when you can't send lengthy requests and wordy reports to 1,000 people simultaneously and instantaneously at the press of a button.

These rules would apply only to internal emails; they wouldn't interfere with activities that require emailing people outside the university. However, a more draconian version would make them apply to all email.

One final thought. I finally cleared my email in-box at about noon today, having waded into it at 8.45am. It's now 1.15pm, and I have 34 emails waiting for my attention. Drip, drip, drip...

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