Email Management

Rant: Email overload? The alternative is much, much worse

It has become commonplace to bemoan “email overload” and point to details such as spending whatever per cent of our lives parsing, sending and reading messages. But if you think that your life is being frittered away in peregrinations between inbox and outbox, think again. Or just ask the generation that knew life before email.

Look at this article from The Guardian. It suggests the average office worker checks his or her email inbox 11 times an hour. Maybe, although I suspect that smart users enable pop-up alerts that allow you to keep a weather eye on messages without repeatedly going to the source. It’s a constant, sure, but it’s also a way of avoiding nasty surprises and keeping up, chiselling away at tasks rather than being left with a block to work on later. We all know the cadence of dealing with incoming mail: ignore – ignore – ignore - read a bit – copy and paste – reply - ignore – ignore - message from boss: answer in detail with gratuitous grovelling – ignore - ignore… It’s not perfect but it’s effective, creating a porous but non-invasive border between ourselves and our colleagues, peers and others. The people who moan about unwanted email approaches are usually dullards with nothing better to do.

In some jobs, customer service for example, you have to answer every email but that’s the job you agreed to do and complaining about email is like complaining about having a swivel chair. We need email and it helps us work with other people, troubleshoot, be creative and do the things for which organisations employ us.

Before email there was the office landline phone and it’s not like the office landline phone now that scarcely rings. Before email, the phone rang “off the hook” as we used to say, and before we moaned about email we moaned about the phone.

The phone then and email now are not analogue and digital equivalents. The phone was much, much worse. With email you have visual clues as to whether you should bother to read the message. The subject line is a clue, the opening lines are a clue. The phone was much more intrusive and because there were few other options for getting in touch it was a persistent threat, difficult to ignore and an unpredictable beast. You couldn’t shake people off and even the act of trying to shake them off chewed through time. As a news journalist in the early 1990s I spent maybe half of my day on the phone and it was not fun or productive. Even the icebreakers – chat about the weather, family, football – took up an unconscionable amount of time and that is time you never get back. It’s a known fact that exceptionally few people on their deathbeds wish they had spent more time on the phone.

When email became ubiquitous, matters became much easier and I could quickly access useful information, edit it and forward to others to do stuff with. Email changed journalism profoundly and for the better: no more 35mm transparencies, photographs, faxes, or printed press releases.

Email is part of our lives like birdsong or the thrum of traffic on a nearby road. There’s a lot of it and it’s not always easy to compartmentalise it. But the phone…


Also read:
The agony of conference calls
Techies killed the conference call
Videoconferencing should mean no Heathrow expansion


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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