Last week, I wrote about my desire to break up with email. Knowing that I probably can’t just quit email cold-turkey, I outlined a plan to gradually ease myself off of email as much as possible. What followed was a lively discussion on Twitter between myself and several other music scholars who are equally frustrated with email, or at least the effects the experience from the ways that others use it. Some in that discussion asked for updates from me on the process as I went through it. This is the first such update.
I outlined three initial steps that I thought could help me ease off of email: 1) check email instead of leaving it to autoupdate in the background as I try to work; 2) work on items on my own to-do list for at least the first 3–4 hours of the day before my first email check; and 3) be proactive about setting up alternatives to email, especially at the beginnings of projects.
This past week, I have been pretty good about checking email instead of auto-updating. I’ve noticed that I can spend a lot less time on email, and stay on task better, when I process it a couple times a day instead of a couple dozen. Of course, this isn’t a break-up-with-email trick, it’s an “inbox zero” trick. However, it eliminates a lot of the bad about email in terms of work flow and annoyance.
Waiting until 11am or so to check email the first time is tough, though. I feel like a recovering addict that’s having a hard time recovering. I don’t feel guilty or panicky when I’m not checking it; I just feel drawn to it. I need some more time practicing discipline, or perhaps an email “fast” over a long work holiday, so that I can get used to not checking it when something else takes priority, or when I don’t have time to focus on processing that email completely (in other words, getting to “inbox zero” and populating my to-do and to-respond lists with the tasks that the email demands).
I haven’t had much of a chance to work on number 3 besides stressing that my students should make use of the class discussion forum instead of email to ask me non-private questions.
Aside from my addiction to email checking, I’ve noticed a couple things as I attempted to break up with email this week. First, as mentioned above, I can process email faster when I do a bunch at once and actually have the time to focus on doing that processing. I also realized that the iPad, especially the notifications in iOS 7, has been somewhat counter-productive for this process. It used to be (and still is, to a large degree) the device of choice when I want to work on one thing without distraction. It’s too easy on the computer, even with only one app open, to wander off-task, whether that be checking email, checking Twitter, or trying to “multitask.” Because multitasking is harder on the iPad, it’s often easier to stay on a single task. However, iOS (7 more than 6) makes it harder to avoid email. I use Mailbox to check my Gmail, and Apple Mail to check my work account. I can shut down both apps to keep them from autoupdating, but only Mailbox can disable the red circle with the number of unread messages on the app icon. Nothing is worse for a recovering email addict than a red reminder of unread emails! And when those apps are open, every new email (and Tweet) not only invades the screen visually (and covers the top of the screen where a lot of the functional elements are in the apps I use), it turns down the sound for a couple seconds so you’re sure to notice. (This is really annoying when playing audio in class off of the iPad and an email comes in.) If anyone has some tips for managing these notifications, I’d love to hear them!
I also noticed that Mailbox on the iPad is a bit of an enabler when it comes to bad email practice. It helps me get things out of the way by deferring them, but I found that I was using the defer option (which would move a message out of my inbox until a certain date/time when it would make an appearance) in place of putting something on my calendar. The inbox is not my calendar; my Moleskine calendar is. I’ve started to be more conscientious about putting things in my calendar, and if I will need to refer to the email for information, I write down an identifier for that message before I archive it. But more generally, I fear that these new task-oriented email apps popping up everywhere won’t actually help us deal with the problem of email, just cover up the most annoying symptoms without dealing with the broken ways in which most of us communicate by default.
Lastly, I’ve found that even when I’m waiting to check email, there are times when I need to write email or look up an email for a different task. When I do that, I see all the unread emails and feel an overwhelming need to “check” them. To get around this, one of three things needs to happen: either 1) I need to develop enough discipline that this isn’t an issue; 2) other people need to use email exactly the same way that I want (them) to (!); or 3) I need to find other ways to accomplish those tasks. So far, these tasks have involved grading (I look over something a student has submitted and email them feedback) or looking up information that was emailed to me that is necessary for the task at hand. Ultimately, I think that email is not the best way to do these two things. When providing feedback to students who submit an assignment via Google Drive, I should put their feedback in Google Drive next to the submission. Similarly if information in an email is necessary for a task, I should take that information and put it where I’ll work on that task when I am processing my email. For instance, I can save a PDF of the email or text file with the necessary info in the computer folder where I am working, or plan to work, on that project. If it’s a non-digital task, I can write it down on next to the item on my to-do list. In every case I’ve noticed this issue coming up, it’s a case where I’m using email (whether my inbox or my “archive” folder) to store information without actually organizing it. It’s like throwing papers onto my desk. And while “inbox zero” feels good, and is good, I think “archive zero” is an important goal, too. That is, not having an empty archive, but only archiving things once they’ve been dealt with (including deciding they don’t need to be dealt with).
That last point perhaps emphasizes a difference between my goals here and those of other people who go for “inbox zero” or simply better management of their email. I’m not simply going for better email productivity. As a UNIX guy, I want to find tools that each do one thing really well, rather than one tool that does a bunch of things good enough. I’m comfortable using a lot of different tools, as a result. I also don’t like interference between tasks just because the tool for one task does another at the same time. And I think that’s part of the problem I have with email that not everyone else has. But while my process here won’t be the process that others want to follow completely, I hope that what I’m going through will hin mind, please let me know what you think in the comments below, or on Twitter!