I’m grateful to the KTN’s Tom Campbell for pointing out yet another fascinating piece in The Guardian, a think piece by the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, author of the celebrated This is Your Brain on Music. The article is effectively an executive summary of Levitin’s new book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, which presents the argument that modern communications tech is having a massive negative impact on our brains. Regular readers will know that he’s pushing on an open door with me on this. I’ll certainly read his book, but mostly as evidence gathering for what I already believe (and yes, probably as an exercise in confirmation bias). Nonetheless, the artice is a concise summation of the potential psycho-physical damage wrought by connected tech: reduced concentration, increased cortisol and adrenaline, sleep deprivation and on and on.

I was particularly strock by this passage about the role of email in our lives:

Before email, if you wanted to write to someone, you had to invest some effort in it. You’d sit down with pen and paper, or at a typewriter, and carefully compose a message. There wasn’t anything about the medium that lent itself to dashing off quick notes without giving them much thought, partly because of the ritual involved, and the time it took to write a note, find and address an envelope, add postage, and take the letter to a mailbox. Because the very act of writing a note or letter to someone took this many steps, and was spread out over time, we didn’t go to the trouble unless we had something important to say. Because of email’s immediacy, most of us give little thought to typing up any little thing that pops in our heads and hitting the send button. And email doesn’t cost anything.

Sure, there’s the money you paid for your computer and your internet connection, but there is no incremental cost to sending one more email. Compare this with paper letters. Each one incurred the price of the envelope and the postage stamp, and although this doesn’t represent a lot of money, these were in limited supply – if you ran out of them, you’d have to make a special trip to the stationery store and the post office to buy more, so you didn’t use them frivolously.

This really chimed with me, because my first job was in in the post room of the Virgin Records HQ in London, so I have a hands-on – if decades old – memory of how people “did” mail back in the 80s. Let me concentrate on internal mail as some reports suggest that as much as 40% of work email is internal.

Here’s how you would send a memo,then, back in 1987. If you were one of the higher ups, you might dictate it to a secretary who would then type it up. If you weren’t, you’d do it yourself. On a typewriter. If the memo was to go to someone else then you copy it using a sheet of carbon paper – hence “cc”, or carbon copy. If you needed it to go to, say, 5 or more people then it would be photocopied by some poor sap like yours truly. (Anyone who’s struggled over a 1980s photocopier will know just why I used the phrase “poor sap” there.) Finally, the memos would be placed in in reusable “for internal use only” memos something like this:

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Oh, and again, yours truly or one of my colleagues would distribute said mail into pigeonholes… just a couple of times a day.

What a staggering waste of time, right? How can I possibly decry the obvious efficiencies that email has brought us? Well, here’s the thing. Precisely because creating and sending mail used to be so onerous… you almost never did it. Seriously, if you were sending an internal memo in any large company in the mid 80s, it was because you had something important to say.

It’s not difficult to see where I’m going with this. Wind forward thirty years and email has become the job. Most readers will instinctively know this to be true. An email from a client to me this morning thanked me for “not clogging up already clogged inbox” because on finding out that he wasn’t in the office last week I didn’t send him a mail. That “clogged inbox”, I would suggest, is ubuiquitous in modern work life, and yet it’s a relatively new thing. I can remember starting at the BBC in 2001 and email really not being an issue – not least because few of us had handheld devices (Blackberry users seemed like sadly addicted corporate workaholics). By the time I left in 2005 it seemed to me that email had become the chief source of stress for all managers. (Interestingly, meetings would be second on that list, and ironically, a third of emails seemed to be either scheduling or following up on meetings.)

But, but… the insanity of this is that, with very few exceptions email is not the job – it is at most, a communication about the job, and very often not even that. Our working life has become utterly meta, a job about a job. Now that’s a staggering waste of time.

In his book The 4-Hour Work Week, author and biohacker Tim Ferriss (a big Turner Hopkins hero it must be said) derides emails as “brain farts”. Over the years his position seems to have mellowed and he now thinks of email as a powerful tool to be used judiciously. I agree, but just how do we go about acquiring that judiciousness? Well, here are a few strategies that I’ve tried on and off over the years, with varying sucess.

Limit the number of times you access email every day. As my dental hygeinist likes to say about flossing, once a day is the gold standard. Unlike flossing, however, the more sessions, the more poorly you’re doing. I would suggest three at the max. And when you do mail, do it – and that’s all – do not multitask. If a mail requires action then schedule that action for later – put a link in your “to read” notebook on Evernote (I recommend having dedicated reading time week for these links or any documents), put “call Charlie” in your diary at a given time, whatever. File or preferably bin the mail, move on. Stop after 30 minutes – at the most.

Do at least one task before checking your mail – and preferably don’t check your mail before midday.

You should aim for white space at the bottom of your inbox. To do so will require ruthlessless in your your triage. The next few points cover that.

Bin or file all CC’d messages; if the mail isn’t addressed to you specifically it’s not worth even glassing at, and is almost certainly someone covering their arse. Do not allow someone else’s arse covering to devour your time.

If it looks like spam, it is spam. Bin it without even looking.

Ditto anything that’s allegedly funny or diverting. Seriously, the microseconds of amusement you’ll get from following the link will not make up for your cortisol level in aggregate.

Unsign from every mailing list you can. This can feel like a game of whack-a-mole as every time you give your email address to a hotel or restaurant or whatever, you’ll end up on a mailing list. But persevere – this is a never ending job, but within two weeks you’ll have got rid of 90% of the offendors and it’s pretty easy to keep on top of things thereafter.

If there’s any source that you really, really want to follow then ask yourself if you couldn’t so better by using a feed reader and subscribing to their feed. The beauty of a feed reader is that you go to it – quite the reverse of email.

Turn off all email alerts, on all devices. Actually, turn off pretty much all alerts for anything on all devices, but most especially email.

You need to accept that for a while this is going to feel uncomfortable – indeed, it can feel like giving up an addiction. Furthermore, as per recovering addicts, you’re going to piss people off, I guarantee it. Colleagues, friends and loved ones will be angry that you’re not getting back to them – how dare you? Don’t worry, they’ll get used to it.

And remember, if your boss asks you “didn’t you see my email?” it perfectly legitimate to say “no – I was doing some work”.

Finally – and again, I’m with Ferriss on this – when you do write an email, do it properly, as though you were writing a letter. Don’t just dash out a “meet Wednesday?” one liner, which is as inelegant as it is disrespectful. Essentially, do unto other’ inboxes as you would have them do unto yours.

And I want to finish by saying that if this comes across as preachy, I apologise. It deeply angers me that millions of hours are wasted every year on this crap and that an apparent efficiency aid has made us the most unproductive working generation in history. And yes, I certainly fall off the wagon now and then. I found myself only this morning checking email on the Tube. Why? I had a good book to read, people to look at and ponder about, daydreams to dream, an incessant monkey brain to keep me amused. And in any case I was only going five stops – could I really not bear to be bored for five stops on the London Underground? Apparently not – so I checked the iphone. Old habits etc. Like I say, this is a lifelong task, but I suspect it’s only going to become ever more crucial for all of us.

Simon

PS. Levitin incidentally makes the point that email is something the young consider for “old people” and certainly he’s right about their personal media use – but I suspect as they join the workforce, this will change.

PPS. My favourite Memo ever:

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