Thursday, February 18, 2016


I can't quite remember exactly when email became such a nuisance in my life, but it must have been a long time ago now since I can barely remember it not being a nuisance anymore.  I think I got my first (AOL) email address in 1994.  Then, the familiar modem-screeching and you've got mail! alert were the soundtrack to a new life, a new Digital Age, about which hardly anyone understood very much. Today, of course, we take constant connection (and the constant surveillance that comes along with it) to be an indisputable (even if not "natural) fact of the human condition. We parse increasingly fine distinctions between our meatspace selves and our digital personae. We carry around instant access to the equivalent of a million Libraries of Alexandria in our pockets, or at least those of us who are "connected" do. And those of us who are connected find it almost impossible to disconnect.

I can still not answer my phone, of course, but refusing to take a call these days doesn't accomplish the same thing that it did in my pre-digital life. Because of caller ID, the caller always knows that I know s/he called.  Because of voicemail, s/he can still communicate with me, and s/he can still maintain a reasonable expectation for an acknowledgment or reply. The same goes for the relationship between snail mail and email.  I open snail mail even less often than I answer my phone, and it's relatively easy to just throw away that unopened mail once a day.  Not so with email.  Spam-filter all you want, but you still can't get away from maddeningly regular accumulation of emails that maddeningly insist on acknowledgment or reply.

In my day-to-day life, I feel like I have a Chester-and-Spike relationship with my email Inbox.  I'm Spike.

The weight of this inability to disconnect or ignore is felt most acutely with regard to professional emails, both from students (who frequently shoot off questions that could easily be asked in person) and colleagues (who, yeah, pretty much do the same). Over the last several years, I've developed a first-day-of-class spiel that is basically intended to put the fear of God in students about unnecessarily emailing me.  It's not that I don't care or don't want to help, I tell them, but you are going to see me basically every 48 hours this semester, so before you hit "send," ask yourself: do I NEED to email? That little chat has gone a long way toward providing some measure of relief to my Inbox, but it's never enough.

A couple of years ago, I saw the (now famous) GoogleTechTalk by Merlin Mann titled "Inbox Zero" on YouTube. It's old (from 2007) but it's a lifesaver and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Mann offers a rigorous approach to email management, aimed at keeping your Inbox empty-- or almost empty-- all the time.  The primary strategy is to quickly decide which of five possible actions to take with regard to any given  email: (1) delete, (2) delegate, (3) respond, (4) defer, or (5) do.  I was pretty successful at (1) already, so the real challenge was forcing myself to do (3) and (5) immediately, and to stop relegating almost everything to (4).

Mann recommends that you periodically process email throughout the day (perhaps at the top of each hour), but also that you not to leave your email client open all the time.  This has been really helpful advice for me. I work on my Inbox Zero strategy at least once an hour, even if that means doing so on my phone, so now I only have to look at an overly-populated Inbox first thing in the morning. Also, according to Mann, you should immediately respond to emails that can be answered in two minutes or less. relegating others that need more attention to a "requires response" folder, which you then return to at some other time in the day that you have set aside for that purpose.  I'm still working on that last part.

Not included in Mann's Inbox Zero plan, but which has been infinitely helpful to me, has been to just get up out of my chair, walk down the hall or across the campus, and actually respond in person whenever possible. Or to shoot back an email that says, "I'm going to see you soon (this afternoon, tomorrow, at a meeting, in class, at Event X, whatevs), let's chat then."  Seriously, on a daily basis, there are at least a half-dozen emails that I can be rid of this way. Correspondingly, I've been working very hard on asking myself the very same things I encourage my students to ask themselves before sending an email: will I see this person soon? does this NEED to be emailed? can this wait? 

Despite my best efforts, I only rarely achieve real Inbox Zero status these days.  Still, just having a strategy to combat the chronic stress of what I now call the "Chester" Inbox-- not to mention the overwhelming urge backhand in frustration people who mean no harm-- is well worth the effort.

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