Posted by: jonkatz | June 23, 2010

Email overload

It’s always interesting when you come across several articles, in different publications and not obviously coordinated with each other, on the same topic.

In a space of a few days, I came across:

Compared to the people in these articles, I would probably be considered a light user: I don’t really use Facebook or Twitter, Idon’t text, and I didn’t have mobile email until a few months ago. But I do feel drowned by email. In addition to the time spent reading/answering my email, and the background pressure to always respond (and, therefore, always check) within 24 hours, I feel my attention constantly divided between the work I am doing and the alerts I get every time an email arrives.

The obvious solution, which I’ve contemplated doing, is to dedicate specific times to email — say, once in the morning and once at the end of the day — and turn it off otherwise. This doesn’t work for several reasons. First, I frequently need to look up old emails when doing my work (this is occasionally true for research, but more often for administrative tasks I am involved in). Second, during the course of the say I often have to send emails and it is hard to avoid reading email at the same time. Finally, I would say that I very often receive emails where it is to my benefit to respond right away. (An easy example occurs when coordinating with co-authors on writing a paper right before a deadline. but there are others.) More generally, checking email infrequently is just inefficient for some tasks, such as setting up an appointment. (If the round-trip time for an email exchange is 24 hours, then it can take several days to schedule a half-hour meeting.)

One idea I’ve thought of to address the last point is to use filters: all email would be read at the designated times except for email with URGENT in the subject line, which I would get notified about right away. It’s unclear how I would “spread the word” to people about this system, or whether people might abuse it by writing URGENT in their emails even when they are not.

Does anyone else have any clever suggestions on how to deal with the issue?



  1. perhaps you might want to consider options pondered in this video:

  2. adam – Thanks for your comment regarding ‘perhaps you might want to consider options’. Rest assured, this response has not been automated.

  3. I think the issue is contrived. We will be spending more time in virtual and augmented realities, not less. Of course we already spend all our time in them, that are made of concrete and steel. They are simply being remade of wires and screens. Setting aside time for digital communication is like throwing shoes in the loom — it might make your life better, but it is unrealistic and unsustainable. As far as getting ‘real work’ done, it seems to me likely that tasks will be divided much more finely, to the point that what’s being accomplished may not be recognizable. Of course our actions always have unforeseen consequences, it is just that these are arriving sooner and sooner. I don’t think even high-level theoretical science is excluded here.

  4. 1) When at a conference DO NOT LOG ON AT ALL.
    Leave a vacation program saying that.

    2) Spend ONE day a week NOT logged on
    (perhaps at home, perhaps goto school and go straight to the library—- perhaps log on in the
    morning and right before you leave but not inbetween)

    3) This is why Gauss got so much more done then we do- he didnt’ have email and blogs and websites to distract him
    (of course, he was also way smarter than most of us).

  5. Use Boomerang and schedule your emails to show up in your inbox only in the morning and evenings.

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