That most irritating of itches: the email alert

November 12, 2004

Tim Birkhead is suffering from information overload - perhaps it's time to switch off

I have just returned from a five-day conference. Back in the office I turn on my computer with a sense of dread. My Mac tells me cheerfully that I have 516 new messages. And this is after the university system has filtered out most of the spam.

Much of it I can deal with quickly: "Minutes of the last staff meeting"; "The university regrets to announce"; "There will be a meeting in the senior common room of the aedeagus enlargement society"; 'What was it you said we had to do for that tutorial..?"

The amount of information flowing between individuals has increased astronomically as a result of email. In the past I would wander down to our porter's lodge at coffee time to pick up the day's mail. If I were lucky, I'd get two or three letters, rarely more.

On an average day now I get about 50 emails. Email is essential, but to a large extent it has become a kind of trivial pursuit. Instead of figuring things out for ourselves, going to the library or checking on the web, it is now so much easier to send someone an email to ask them. We even email the people working in the office next door.

Email is also wonderful at generating redundancy and inefficiency: "I'm interested in doing a PhD in your lab and you'll find attached to this email seven documents with my CV, letter of inquiry (what, another one?), letters of recommendations from my three referees, a copy of my school report, and I have sent them as both Word documents and pdfs, just to be certain you can access them." I can't wait. Especially when I discover that all my colleagues have received the same message.

I love my Mac, but I hate that nasty little message icon that bounces irritatingly like some kind of external parasite craving for a scratch. How do I cope? How does anyone?

There are several strategies. At one end of the spectrum, there are those thick-skinned, hard-nosed and possibly lonely individuals who can simply ignore their incoming emails. The strategy is effective, since after a while few persist in sending messages. My upbringing simply won't allow me to ignore emails, but replying just encourages them to reproduce in cyberspace and send me their babies.

An obvious way of coping with email is not to turn it on, until say, 30 minutes before going home. But having your email off all day can be inconvenient. Often I find I need to send a message, and as soon as I turn on the email the bouncing icon re-emerges, tugging at my sleeve. It boils down to costs and benefits - the benefits of having email switched off being peace and the cost being having to work in a slightly different (old-fashioned) but more efficient way. Ironically, email was thought to increase our efficiency, but once each of us gets more than a few each day, the decrease in efficiency across the higher education system as a whole must be enormous.

Another very effective strategy is one that I came across a few years ago.

I sent a message to someone only to receive an immediate automatic reply.

This said: "Dr X is writing a book at the moment and will not be able to answer your email." Then, to my amazement, Dr X replied to my message just a few minutes later. In other words, he or she had their email on after all, but only replied to those messages they wanted to. Neat. Well, not really - for their book writing must have been continually interrupted by incoming messages and, indeed, no book ever appeared.

The most effective technique for me is to work at home where I have no email connection. But, of course, I know there'll be a new crop of emails waiting for me when I return.

Tim Birkhead is professor of behavioural ecology at Sheffield University.

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