Please End the Misery

It was a headline guaranteed to grab my attention: “Email is making us miserable.” And the subtitle really hit home too: “In an attempt to work more effectively, we’ve accidentally deployed an inhumane way to collaborate.” This is how Cal Newport began his recent article in The New Yorker on the misery of email.

Work Harder (Jordan Whitfield)

In this article, he argues that email exploits and perverts our fundamental human need for connection. In the first place, it lures us in with the promise of meaningful relationship. Then it threatens us with deprivation of those relationships if we have the temerity to limit our time on email. Of course, toss in a little hit of dopamine now and then for the rare occasion good news arrives via email, and you have created a system that makes nearly willing slaves of us all.

But it also makes us miserable. Newport cites a University of California (Irvine) study that found that “The longer one spends on email in [a given] hour the higher is one’s stress for that hour.” Unfortunately, the common recommendation to limit time on email by batching messages is not always a good solution. Other researchers found that “batching e-mails actually made them more stressed, perhaps because of worry about all of the urgent messages they were ignoring.” Finally, a 2019 study of Swedish workers came to another troubling conclusion: “They found that repeated exposure to “high information and communication technology demands” (translation: a need to be constantly connected) were associated with “suboptimal” health outcomes.”

But how do we reduce the misery? Part of the problem is the unrelenting pace of email, coupled with the haphazard nature of its messages. It’s as if we are running an endless marathon through a minefield.
Unless you want to feel like Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory (see below), the first step is to reduce the volume and pace of the flow. This means:

  • Reducing your own contributions to the volume:
    • Make a conscious choice NOT to use email if another, more effective communication method is available to you. Of course, this means that you have to get educated on those other options.
    • Keep the email messages you write short, sweet, and to the point. And make sure your subject line contains the gist of your message.
    • Indicate near the top of your message what action is required.
    • Do not cc and bcc a ton of people. Copying people simply adds unnecessary work (and stress) to their day. (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you!)
    • Do not engage in email volleys. If it goes beyond two rounds of responses, pick up the phone and talk it out.
  • Shutting down behaviors that add to the volume:
    • If you are on the receiving end of lots of copied email, ask the sender what they are hoping to achieve. If it is a defensive move on their part, you likely have some miscommunication or trust issues that must be addressed.
    • If you see something, say something. When email threads get out of control, suggest that the conversation be taken offline. If necessary, convene the offline conversation yourself.
    • When you see people using email like a Swiss army knife, gently point them to the better tool. For example, if they are trying to be collaborative, they might have more success on a platform specifically designed for collaborative work. (For the record, that platform is NOT email.)
  • Setting expectations for your team:
    • Set common expectations on response time. Is replying within 24 hours sufficient? If not, what is the right period? People stress out when they worry that they haven’t responded quickly enough. (For the record, an immediate response should not be necessary. If it is an emergency, call or text.)
    • Set common expectations on the right communications medium. Email is fine for information that is not time sensitive. However, it is suboptimal for emergency communications, scheduling, shooting the breeze and, above all, collaborating. Make sure you have better options available to your team and then make sure they are trained and able to use those better options well.

As you’re reducing the volume, you also need to remove the mines in the minefield. This means:

  • Create more trust in your work relationships so that you have the assurance that your colleagues will bring important matters to your attention in a timely fashion.
  • Establish with your colleagues preferred ways of communicating bad news. If you can, choose face-to-face conversation (or, at least, a phone call) over email.
  • Get to know your colleagues better. The more you know them and their work, the less likely you are to be unpleasantly surprised.

Unless you have magical powers, you cannot reform your entire organization. But making these changes within your team could materially reduce the misery inflicted on all of you by email. Wouldn’t that be a change for the better?

Lucy and Ethel at the Chocolate Factory (I Love Lucy)

[Photo Credit: Jordan Whitfield]

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