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The Dichotomy of Email

I want to add a quick addendum to my recent series of posts about avoiding email overwhelm in our current moment of total remote work. Though longtime readers have heard me talk about this before, it’s important to emphasize the dichotomous nature of this tool:

  • On the one hand, email is a massively useful way to send text and files to individuals or groups. It’s much better than voicemails or memos. If we had to go back to these older technologies it would be a major pain.
  • On the other hand, email makes us miserable.

How are both true at the same time?  The problems with email are less about the tool than they are about how we deploy it. We run more and more of our work through a single undifferentiated inbox, which means we constantly feel overloaded, and end up context-shifting frenetically between dozens of concurrent but unrelated asynchronous conversations (which, as I argue in Deep Work, is a cognitive disaster).

I mention this only to help diminish any nagging cognitive dissonance. It’s perfectly consistent to love the convenience of shooting off a digital file to your team in an efficient message, while at the same time dreading what awaits you in your inbox.

(Photo by Phil Roeder.)

10 thoughts on “The Dichotomy of Email”

  1. The important thing is not to get too attached to anything whether it is email or social media. Use it according to our purpose.

  2. Absolutely agree, it’s a love-hate relationship. Trying out the Trello boards that you mentioned in your previous post to, hopefully, have some structure in the increasing workload (and therefore, emails!). Give me a few weeks – will update how I’m progressing, or not. Thanks Cal!

  3. Hi Cal,

    Have you seen those email signatures that share, “I only check email between X and Y”, or “I write all emails in three or less sentences”, etc… kind of a disclaimer to email behavior?

    What is your signature or what would you recommend? A 1-3 sentence…this is what I’m doing and why.

  4. Is there a way to set up Outlook so that the outbox sends automatically, but your inbox only refreshes manually? I’ve experimented with the send/receive groups, but I wonder if a company setting is overriding them.

    Outlook is my most frequent distraction because I usually see the inbox whenever I’m searching prior emails for information or looking at my calendar, where I organize my fixed-schedule productivity blocks.

  5. On the one hand, they pay me to concentrate. On the other hand, they ask me to be checking e-mail and whatsapp constantly to see if something urgent has arrived.

  6. The way I’ve dealt with email for years is by mostly ignoring it.

    Several days ago, a colleague mentioned a project I’m involved with, and I asked about the status. “I sent that in an email to you yesterday,” she said. “But you don’t read your emails.” She wasn’t upset about it at all, because she knows that I only check my email occasionally. It’s just the way I work. And then she told me the status of the project, anyway, and the most-important elements requiring my attention.

    I hear the same complaint about many other high-level executives I work with. Several months back when I was visiting a client in Chicago, the Marketing Director jokingly complained about her CMO, in his presence, “He doesn’t read his emails. Or Slack messages, for that matter.” And he shot back, “that’s what I have you for.”

    Sometimes, this creates problems, especially when I’m the bottleneck in a project. But in those cases, I find that people interrupt me, anyway, to keep the ball moving. I can’t think of a single instance when mostly ignoring my email has created a major challenge in the last 10+ years that I’ve worked this way. More often than not, my email “work” consists of deleting dozens or hundreds of messages, many of them issues that resolve themselves.

  7. I have this image of people’s first exposure to email as like a farmer getting a brand new pickup truck. Cut to five years later: video of beaten up truck carrying a cow, the farmer’s grandmother, 16 chickens, a roll of barbed-wire, and a pile of mattresses slowly falling off onto the road behind you.

    I work in a university environment, which generally means “10-20 years behind private sector workplace habits”. People email the person next to them with “Dear X,have you read the email I sent last week?, regards Y, [20 line signature with 6 embedded gif logos].” The communications are like a series of letters in a Jane Austen novel.


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