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It’s Okay to Be Bad at E-mail


The Internet Heretic

I previously admitted that I don’t web surf and that I’ve never had a social media account. This next admission might be the final straw that leads to the permanent revocation of my internet privileges: I’m bad at answering e-mails.

I sometimes go a whole day without looking at my inbox (and sometimes even longer). I ignore messages. People I know well tend to call me when they really need to know something.

I’m not bad at e-mails on purpose. If anything, I’m apologetic and ashamed about it and try to be more responsive when I can. But I only have so many hours to work each day, and I tend to block as much as I can get away with for deep efforts.

This philosophy is a boon to my role as a theoretician trying to solve interesting problems, but a bane to my role as a member of a bureaucracy.

Accepting E-mail Mediocrity

If I step back for a moment, however, it becomes clear that this trade-off makes sense. As a professor at a research institution it’s okay to be bad at e-mail. Indeed, it’s much better that I be bad at e-mail and good at research than the inverse.

And I think this observation generalizes.

At some point in the 1990’s, we (knowledge workers) all seemed to internalize this ethic that any e-mail arriving in our inbox was crucial and important and demanding immediate attention. We were transformed into human network routers fiercely fighting to improve our throughput.

We began to strive for an empty inbox and the most efficient possible strategies for quickly processing this deluge. The twenty-minute response time became an aspirational standard.

But I want to propose an alternative: Not everyone needs to be easily reached by e-mail.

Some people, such as those who deal with clients all day or manage large teams that crave frequent guidance, should be pros at this skill. But other people, like computer programmers, writers, advertising gurus and professors, should be free to suck at e-mail just as much as they might suck at other skills that aren’t that relevant to their core value proposition.

I know this is a basic thing to say, but I suspect it’s worth reiterating.

If you disagree, you could e-mail me about it, but bear with me, it might take me a while to respond.

40 thoughts on “It’s Okay to Be Bad at E-mail”

  1. Cal,

    I’m currently a undergraduate student right now. Personally I found this post interesting for a variety of reasons. For one I am really interested in email. For example, over my winter break one year I didn’t check my email for a whole week or two. This felt great and I got a lot done. The world didn’t destroy itself and life seemed to happen without me.

    On the other side of things it actually bothers me when people have tons of emails in their inboxes. To me it says “I let things slip by”. I try to get to inbox zero when I can but right now with how busy I am as of late this isn’t happening as regularly as I’d like. That being said if I didn’t check email as an undergraduate I’d miss out on announcements from classes, study groups forming, feedback on work, and keeping tabs on my whole academic life. To me email is essential in communicating with my professors and TA’s. If I ignored email I wouldn’t be doing my job to keep updated and aware of things, announcements, and deadlines.

    Right now I am in school on track to teach high school and middle school history. For me email is essential to communicate with parents and students when I get my job. Without it things would be chaos. That being said often times I wish I could go without email. I simply don’t have that option.

    I’m also someone who has multiple social media accounts and try to keep tabs on those too. My grandmother though hasn’t owned a computer in years and she’s happier then a clam.

    Finally I personally get frustrated when professors and TA’s don’t check or respond to an email since it’s most convenient and often times time sensitive. Eventually I think the world will somehow merge text messages with email. Also I realize that one’s productivity and life should not be defined by email. To make things easier there should be a program that is a form that one fills out with options in your case about post suggestions, things to read, etc. Then someone like yourself could just check this once a month to see what interesting things people find for you to explore. Just some food for thought.

    • Your last paragraph, I think, gets at the heart of the current problem with e-mail in our culture. You say that you get really annoyed when your professors and TA’s don’t answer your time sensitive e-mails. The first thing we can argue is that time sensitive communication is not on the critical path to learning at college, as college instruction hasn’t changed much in the past few hundred years and e-mail is recent. Your professors and TA’s, in other words, are not doing something bad in the sense that it’s hurting your ability to learn. They are instead defying your expectation that people can be reached when you need them and get you information you need as you need it. This expectation is somewhat new and one I think we need to begin to rewire. I agree it might be convenient to the sender if all potential respondents were at his or her electronic summons, but it doesn’t mean that this is somehow the best state in which to run an institution.

      • I agree wholeheartedly. I teach research methods to external/distance learning students, so lectures and tutorials are digitally delivered and recorded. Many of the emails I receive from students are answered by the topic guide, textbook, readings, lecture recordings, forum posts and recorded tutorials, but emailing me is more convenient than engaging with the many, many resources provided. This has led me to believe that by responding quickly to email and spoon-feeding students sound-bites of immediate gratification, I actually impede the learning process. Next year I plan to institute a policy that I will only respond to emails that a) are not addressed by the resources or b) seek clarification regarding the information in the resources, as I have spent more time wading through emails this year than on actual teaching.

        This suspicion was confirmed one weekend when I did not have internet access. I came back to a series of emails from one student that demonstrated a process of learning as he grappled with and then figured the problem out for himself. This is how I learned during my undergraduate degree; my success was dependent on my own learning and engagement, and I graduated in spite of a paucity of tutor support.

        • Excellent comment! Thanks for sharing your rules. I have taken them down amd look forward to implement them when a similar situation arises in my life.

  2. During my 15 years as a hedge fund manager I used to be the fastest e-mail router around – I took pride in it too. (FYI – I got around 1000 e-mails per day, mostly from brokers and analysts)

    Now that I’ve retired (I’m 42) I’m only checking e-mail about twice a day -and it’s NOT because they are any less important or urgent, I have simply realized that e-mails are not supposed to be urgent. Only a project team leader whose job DESCRIPTION is to be an information router should answer e-mails in close to real time.

    Everybody else should just set aside 1-3 fifteen minute slots a day, to read and answer e-mails and cleaning out their inbox.

  3. I look at what is in coming into my e-mail box quite often and prioritize looking at it based on who the e-mail is coming from. This makes sense to me. Of course, if you usually work as a sole author and don’t have any students then maybe you can just ignore all your e-mail for a few days.

  4. At work, I answer emails in batches once every 2 or 3 hours. I have no sound signalling the arrival of email. My mobile phone is always in silent mode during work. When I have time, I check my phone and email.

    However, I do try to answer the same day or at least the following day.

    I do this, because I prefer people emailing me so I can respond when I choose to, rather than being interrupted by a phone call and being distracted from my work.

    However, fortunately I am not being drowned in emails, it’s less than a hundred per day.

  5. Email and social media are tools that can help us be more productive. When they make us less productive and keep us from doing deep work, we need to find alternative ways of using them or do away with the most disruptive social media/email activities altogether.

    The best thing about email, though, is the electronic “paper trail.” When my memory-impaired department chair comes to my office screaming, “Why did you do this? I never told you to do this!” I can just print out her mail to show her that she indeed told me to do this.

  6. This reminds me a bit of my PhD supervisor. He also takes ages to reply to emails or often simply ignores them, not matter how urgent your question is. This can often be very frustrating and really destroys your motivation. I hope you’re not like that to your students, Cal.
    As a result, none of his PhD students stay to work with him and most leave academia for good. probably he doesn’t care but I don’t think that this is healthy for his own ability to produce high quality research.

    • A lot of professors at MIT during my time as a grad student had a similar habit. If they didn’t know how to respond to your message, or couldn’t easily respond, they wouldn’t.

      However, I certainly didn’t see their students leaving academia because of this (are you sure that it really was e-mail etiquette driving students away why from your former group?). It instead simply changed their students’ expectations. Student’s learned (myself included), for example, that the best approach was to setup a weekly meeting and be really prepared for the meeting so that they could get the information and insight they must needed. In other words, they did more work so that their famous adviser could do less (a fair trade).

      They also learned that an ignored e-mail meant they should write a better e-mail. For example, a long ambiguous message about some thorny technical problem might not get an answer (too hard to reply). But a follow-up message that said, “I want to stop by during the last 20 minutes of your office hours on Thursday to show you my new result for X, let me know if this is a problem,” would likely get a reply.

      I’m not a famous MIT professor so I tend to be more accessible than that. But in my experience as a grad student and postdoc, I didn’t see any negative ramification of professor’s not being easily accessible. I kept remembering that professors and students worked well together for many years before the invention of e-mail…

      • You’re right it wasn’t just email etiquette. It is more a general disinterest in his PhD students. I have tried to write more concise emails, meet him more often but all of this didn’t help. He seems to see his PhD students more as tools to extend his own papers and if they don’t think that his approaches are correct or if they develop their own ideas they get ignored.
        Anyway, I’m going to submit soon and then the pain is over. After this phd experience there’s no way I’m staying in academia and I already have a really cool job lined up.
        Actually from what I see I’m sure that you’re different, Cal and that you do provide mentoring for your students and have an interest in their development. And I agree that regular meetings can replace email

      • One of the reasons I left academia was the difficulty in contacting professors. I decided that I would much rather work somewhere where people need to be contactable or they face consequences. I appreciate professors are busy and don’t have time to help younger students and PhD students, but it certainly makes you feel that you aren’t particularly valued.

        • To speak in defense of professors, it’s not that they are looking at your e-mail and then thinking, “well I don’t value this, I’ll ignore it!” Instead, they’re in a job where to keep their position they need to spend lots of uninterrupted hours immersed in deep work — be it solving problems, lecturing, or preparing lectures (the three main tasks of academic life, all of which are cognitively draining).

          While in this state of immersion e-mail is silently piling up in their inbox beyond a point where they could ever hope to make a reasonable dent in the slivers of administrative time that remain. When they don’t answer, therefore, it’s not that they are deciding to ignore you specifically, so much as they are seeing that they have an inbox with many more messages than they could ever hope to get through.

          You mention that there should be consequences for professors who do not answer all of their e-mails. It’s important to keep in mind that there already is a consequence or those who do: they’re likely to not get tenure.

  7. Dear Cal,

    you seem to be very research focussed. There is nothing wrong with that, but what about your teaching obligations? I guess that your approach of blocking time and removing yourself physically and email-ly from student access is compensated somehow. How do you handle that part of your professional life?

    Your advise on “Study Hacks” (blog and books) is great. To some extend the need of “hacks” is a symptom of unsupportive teachers/professors. Learning-centered teaching is applying Cal Newport’s advise in the classroom — as a teacher. Did your own advise influence or even transform you as a teacher?


  8. The ability to check email on your smartphone has introduced yet another wrinkle. As a result I can check e-mail while walking to lunch or while stopped at a light in my car. So I end up checking email fairly frequently, but I am not replying right away. Rather batching it. This leads unavoidably to some email slipping through the cracks.
    Still I put somewhat of a priority to reply to students presently taking my course.

  9. Many tools were invented or developed t make life easier than to misuse it. As an IT professional the need to communicate across continent has become the fundamental part of the job. what’s the best and efficient way one of them is email. I see why study hacks is again and again raising the issue is because it hampers productivity for an academician yes because it’s a kind of individual pursuit compared to the corporate world. But for the corporate world it’s essential for productivity. If we can make an email like kind of to do list then that would be better. As usual the strength can become weakness and viceversa.

  10. One thing that I instituted in my line of work (academia) is the concept of email hours, where the student who email me know when I open and reply to their emails. It really helps in managing my work email. Also, as a few mentioned here, sometimes in answering emails from undergrads, they tend to look for shortcuts instead delving into the material.

  11. I love email. Nothing is more disruptive of a work session or creative flow period than a phone call. Thank goodness they are obsolescent. I feel spammed when somebody calls now. In business, I also have the suspicion that someone calling doesn’t want a permanent record for some reason, or is trying to “sell” me in real time. Sensible people text or email. Its always there and you can deal with it when you get a chance. Not like the NOW NOW NOW of a phone call.

  12. 1) I manage my email in a sane and rational fashion

    2) you are lackadaisical, and let your email get on top of you

    3) He is an egotistical prick who cannot be bothered to respond to messages

  13. I strongly believe that more and more professors are getting used to emails. As a prospective PhD student, I have sent email to professors in USA and Europe. I remember a Caltech professor replying candidly through his iPad while he was on a holiday. Another professor at King’s College London replying on weekends. I think professors now value the content of the email and the intent of the sender to respond. Trend is changing, and for good.

  14. The challenge for me at being bad at email is that it’s fine to be slow or even unresponsive to a lot of my email, but not all of it. There are a number of messages each month where it’s really important for me to respond promptly. There’s almost never anything that needs an answer in minutes, but waiting more than a day for those would be detrimental.

    Even though I’m the CEO of an email productivity company, I haven’t found a workflow that solves this perfectly. I’ve set up a couple of the tools we make that help – I use Inbox Pause to only deliver messages to my Inbox two times per day, and I use our Email Game to triage all of the messages in big batches. That way, I spend almost no time staring at my message list, and I’m forced to at least see every email.

    Even with this workflow, I struggle with messages that include requests I’d like to address but that require complicated decisions or a lot of work. It’d be better if I had an easier time saying no. And I still find myself checking email when I shouldn’t be, especially on my phone.

    As someone who also spent a few years in the CS department at MIT, then went on to start a company all about email, it’s cool to see others thinking about the same problems! If you ever have any ideas about how to be good at email and research at the same time, let me know!

  15. Great article ! I personally find email to be overwhelming, distracting, and stress inducing. With technology I find every single person uses and interacts with it differently, some people are impossible to reach by phone yet reply to an email in a matter of minutes. Other people are best reached by text, facebook, ect. There are times when anyone can get a response to me on social media, but other times when I don’t check it for months on end. I find i’m pretty consistent with email, but this notion of “not being good” at a form of communication resonates with me.

    Anyway, I should be studying but probably spend a bit more time on your site !

    ( I love this font)


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