I'm hustling into the office again, specifically to tackle email before the formally-scheduled day kicks off. Why am I doing this? - a question I ask myself frequently. Not why am I doing my job, per se. I love the job. But why is more and more of my time required just to manage a neverending flow of email? I know I am not alone. The time stamp on many of the messages in my inbox tell me folks are facing this same challenge at all hours of the day and night.
The last couple of weeks have been exceptionally bad for email overload. A few days ago I spent a two-hour block of time doing nothing by dealing with things that had to be dealt with in my email inbox. At the end of the two hours as many new messages had arrived as the number of existing messages I had dealt with. I was no further ahead than when I started. My short six-mile drive home each evening typically sees 25 to 35 new email message arrive during those 15 or so minutes. When water is flowing into a vessel faster than water is draining, you have a problem.
Sure, some percentage of this email torrent can be quickly handled in a state of constant triage. Maybe 25-30% can be filed or glanced-at-and-filed with no further action required. But most of the email I receive requires I do something else in responses. That can range from composing a thoughtful message in response, setting up another meeting to sort through whatever the issue is, creating an action-item for myself, or delegating something to someone else (which often means distilling something specific from the text of a vague or rambling email).
But here is my question ("I'm really not whining - I'm problem-solving!," he said with a wink.): why are we burying ourselves in email every day? Because we are doing this to ourselves, to each other. For every email I receive that requires some action on my part at least one more email will be generated in response, sometimes more than one. This effect multiplied over time can become, quite literally, exponential. Stop and think about it for a minute: if every email you send to someone will generate one or more additional emails being sent by the recipient to someone else (usually including you), shouldn't we handle this time-slicing sword with more care?
It is a 24-hour phenomenon, pretty much every day of the year. For me, the real flood begins shortly after mid-day and gushes well into the evening. The world is not, apparently, full of morning people. That lack of schedule alignment between correspondents would seem to the be perfect justification for an asychronous tool like email, but it often only contributes to the number of messages spawned in those non-overlapping morning and evening hours. Which, in turn, means more of those morning and evening hours have to be spend reading and responding to email. For all the good we're doing we might just as well address every email to everyone in the organization. I mean, I regularly see colleagues with email inboxes indicating hundreds and even thousands of messages waiting to be dealt with!
It reminds me of the smugly wise and silent people of the planet Kakrafoon (from The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy) who were sentenced by a Galaxtic Court to having the curse of telepathy imposed on them. Their every thought was then immediately broadcast telepathically to everyone else, while they "heard" everyone elses's every thought, with no checks or filters. This, in turn, drove them to talk non-stop about any unimportant thing they could come up with to keep from broadcasting their thoughts and/or hearing others'. Suddenly the quietest planet in the galaxy became the loudest. Douglas Adams tells the story more colorfully, but you get the gist.
The tool is clearly overrunning the master. Which suggests there is some underlying need that is not being effectively met and for which email is becoming an increasingly desperate compensation. So what do we do to break this chain reaction of sent email? After all, organizations ran effectively before the ubiquity of email. [And please don't suggest the phone, or at least not voicemail. Voicemail has to be the least efficient form of communication we have yet invented. The phone is for real-time conversation, not asynchronous message bombing.]
Some people treat email as if it were a real-time communication tool, expecting a response to come back quickly, and certainly within 12-24 hours. That way leads to frustration and certainly contributes to the overall problem.
Email also creates greater access to individuals than would otherwise exist. Anyone, for example, can email the President or CEO of an organization and demand a slice of their time by virtue of landing in their inbox. I see this dynamic a lot when a decision gets made that some folks disagree with. It becomes their individual right to demand change personally and directly. Usually via a long and increasingly angry/passionate email message crafted to make the decision sound like an attack on all that is right and good about civilization. Which means that a number of individuals, individually, require some sort of response (more email!) and the time it takes to fit that into the workday schedule. But is it really the best use of said CEO's time to answer every individual's question directly? Is that even realistically possible? Shouldn't most questions be resolved elsewhere?
However, ignoring email is also not much of an option. An ignored message is only going to be resent, usually with more text appended, and in some circumstances roping in others via cc or bcc to raise the urgency of the message. Sometimes (shudder) it leads to an email unnecessarily addressed to everyone in the organization.
Similarly, there are the "just keeping you in the loop" email threads with the cc's and bcc's. Suddenly your inbox is riding along on a multi-day string of messages from and to a number of folks as they try to asynchronously resolve some issue that could probably be handled in a few minutes of direct discussion between 2 or 3 people.
I don't have the answer to this problem. I know it lies is some underlying unmet need (or needs), and the unrealistic expectation that we should always have immediate and direct access to everyone else; that we have the right to expect their time and attention to anything and everything. But that doesn't get me any closer to any ideas for bringing this beast under control.
Wouldn't it be nice, though, if we were to select one day each year (let's call it Purge Day) on which everyone would do a "select-all" and "delete/archive" on their inbox, understanding everyone else was going to do the same. Then, we all start fresh and (hopefully) with greater restraint to send only those messages for which email is the best venue.
Or we can continue to stay up into the late night or come in extra early every day just to work through some portion of our inbox of unread email.
Today's full playlist:
- BMW Band: Morning of the New Day
- The Traveling Wilburys: Inside Out
- Train: Calling All Angels
- Steve Parks: Still Thinking of You