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:
- An article in CACM on email addiction.
- Several reviews of a book on how the Internet is ruining our brains (in particular, through the constant bombardment of email).
- Two articles in the New York Times: one on technology addiction and its effects on people’s lives, and a second on the effects of technology on memory.
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?