I started my career as a person who worked in an office on complex projects with teams of people before email was common.
If you wanted to connect with colleagues, you had several choices:
- Walk down the hall to their desk and talk to them. (Distance working wasn’t really a thing back then either.)
- Pick up your phone and call them.
- Type a memo on a piece of paper and put it in their inbox.
- Have a meeting.
All those ways were effective, and you’d choose the one that worked for the situation at hand.
Then we got email.
Such an easy way to communicate! Just type and hit send! It felt like a miracle.
We could only send and receive within the office, so our email world was a couple of dozen colleagues. And we couldn’t attach files. That still required paper.
It took a few months for a problem to become evident: A high portion of what popped into inboxes was irrelevant information, mostly because senders would copy everyone who might remotely be connected to their topic in any way. The numbers were small: I got about 10 emails a day back then. Opening and then ignoring the five or six irrelevant messages wasn’t a big deal.
I still remember the distinctive chime my computer made when a message arrived. At first, it was cool and exciting. For a writer, getting interrupted 10 times a day is bad, but it’s manageable. But over time, the number increased as email became more and more the go-to way of communicating. And the company was growing. I began to dread that little chime.
How innocent we were.
Fast-forward to now. Then anyone in the world can interrupt your work with an email about anything of their choosing. Hundreds of times a day and through the night. We hardly noticed the gradual change. We were frogs in the kettle.
If we had suddenly jumped from no email to the way things are today, I think everyone in the world would be screaming for help. I can guarantee there would have been swift and forceful action by businesses and maybe even governments.
Email is a big problem — so big, you should start thinking right now how you — and all of us — can rethink this monster. That’s why I recommend the new book, A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload by Cal Newport.
Newport says email jacks us into what he calls a “hyperactive hive mind” — a disturbingly accurate term for the endless stream of urgent interruptions, much of it irrelevant, that keep us from thinking, working, or having any inner peace.
You already know this, but Newport pours out the painful facts about email:
Email reduces productivity
The human brain isn’t built to multitask. Email virtually forces us into a constant state of attempted multitasking.
One study Newport cites, researchers found that the average worker had a total of 75 minutes a day that were not interrupted by checking email or instant messaging. That’s not 75 minutes in a row. It’s 75 minutes total, sprinkled throughout the day. That’s on average. Many people have it even worse. The studies and anecdotes go on and on. Email “reduces productivity”? More like slaughters it.
You and your organization can’t afford this anymore.
Email makes us miserable
If lost productivity doesn’t get your attention, this one should: By constantly interrupting and by erasing the barrier between the workday and the rest of your life, it’s a deep threat to your wellbeing. Studies show that the more time you spend on email, the higher your stress levels.
The enormity of the problem of email makes it so that the self-defence moves any of us make can’t really solve the problem. Systems like “inbox zero” and the 4-hour workweek can help (if you can stick with them), but they don’t make the large-scale change we need. That’s why you need to read this book: To promote and participate in a meaningful conversation about how we can save ourselves from email. To take back our lives!
Here are a few thoughts from the book:
Use task boards rather than email to communicate about routine status issues
Put project status information in a central place, rather than having it fly around everyone’s inbox, use a centralized task board, such as Asana, Flow, or Trello. (At Moceanic, we use Trello, and are quite happy with it.) If you work in a centralized office, a physical whiteboard can do the trick.
Have strict scheduling protocol
One of the most frustrating types of email ping-pong is negotiating a meeting among several people. You can remove these from your inbox with an online scheduling tool, such as Acuity, ScheduleOnce, Calendly, or x.ai.
In some cases, a human assistant can do the job — like in the old days. A more affordable version is a part-time virtual assistant.
Limit your “get in touch” time to strict “office hours”
Academics do this, and it has worked for them for centuries: Schedule a few hours on one or two days a week as the only time you’re available for queries. Outside of your office hours, you don’t answer emails, instant messages, maybe even phone calls. This will ruffle some feathers, but it could give you back your time.
Stick to short-message email protocols
Try it: Everyone keeps their emails to five sentences or less. If the topic at hand is too complex for that, email is probably not the way you should handle it.
Here’s a microsite you can put in your email footer to spread the short-message news: http://five.sentenc.es/
A world without email seems like an impossible dream. But not so long ago, a world without polio seemed impossible too.
It’s possible, but not easy.
Want to talk with other fundraising professionals about the possibility of life without email? Join our free Facebook community, the Smart Fundraisers Forum.
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thanks Jeff, i’ll get the book… fascinating… I use email to confirm things instead of memos.