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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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In 2021 I spent 506 hours answering email. That’s less than the 558 that I spent on the task in 2020, but it’s still a full 72 days’ worth of my time per year. (My nominal contract is seven hours per day, but for an eight-hour day, it’s still 63 days.) It’s less than some people and more than others. I would like to do less of this as it’s not terribly rewarding, so yesterday I read Cal Newport’s A World Without Email.

The first thing is the somewhat amusing reaction from most people when they hear the title of this book. It seems to go from disbelief to gruff dismissal. Without having read it, people seem to assume that Newport might be suggesting “just ignore emails from other people”, or that he must have invented some new system that they think will be crap and cannot possibly work. They cannot imagine how you could work remotely in a “world without email” (which also includes a “world without Discord” or a “world without Slack”). He’s done a really good job of finding a title that hits a nerve!

What Newport is actually ranting against, though, is what he calls the “hyperactive hive mind” mentality of organizational management. This is a model in which everybody is plugged in and available to answer everybody else’s blocking queries immediately via email. It’s not a very good model because although it gives short-term convenience – nobody gets stuck for long – the constant need to context switch, in which you move from one task and context to another, adds a high overhead to the activity. Also, because email is never finished (you’re always just waiting for the next message), there is very little satisfaction in “completing” your inbox tending. The hyperactive hive mind also tends to accelerate; as the expectation for a speedy reply becomes ever greater, the pressure to provide it commensurately amplifies. In a global world, working across timezones, this can be deeply problematic.

So what are the actual tips? How can I spend less time dealing with my inbox?

  • Compartmentalize. If the problem is overhead and context switching, then sorting things into neat compartments that do not require the switching is key. Using a tool like Trello, with a board for each area of your work, can be one way to sort things.
  • Change institutional culture. Hmm. That’s difficult at a big organization like a university where I work – and especially one where the staff are reluctant to change anything in their personal workflows. Hence, I have a limited ability to change organizational culture around email.
  • Hire a virtual personal assistant to filter my emails. This is theoretically a good idea. But it comes with serious data protection issues if we are dealing with students. Indeed, I think that I cannot do this because of the provisions of the GDPR, as I would be sharing potential personal data with a third-party provider.
  • Do not schedule meetings by back and forth on email. This one is important and key. It is ridiculous how much time this takes. Use Calendly or Doodle.
  • Write shorter emails. I might try five sentences. Longer feedback emails – say, to PhD students – I will write up in a LibreOffice document and attach it.
  • Block out time for activities, including email. If I really want to spend less time doing email, I cannot let email control the time that it takes. I assume that this will be easier said than done, because I can’t and won’t just ignore important emails. But it’s a start.
  • Have more face-to-face, but short, meetings. If you schedule these with members of your team every week and use Scrum-like methods (what did you do yesterday, what will you do today, what will you do tomorrow?), keeping the whole thing under 15 minutes could save many hours of context switching and email updates.
  • Batch things together. If there is a query that requires an answer from me, ask team members to store these up for a weekly meeting, rather than expecting an answer there and then.

So who knows whether I will be able to cut back on how much time I spend answering emails. It’s easy on the 1st January to set a resolution. It’s less easy actually to put it into practice.