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Following up on my previous post Smartphones & Unpaid Overtime that outlined various strategies for dealing with smartphone technology to escape unreasonable expectations for unpaid work after hours, this post shifts the focus to surviving floods of email.

Among the multitude of straws landing on the backs of already fully loaded camels are those physically weightless electronic messages that help propel workers into task saturation and time poverty. Far from being an insignificant burden, however, email ‘inbox overload’ is a difficult dilemma that adds untold stress to working lives.

In fact, up to 65% of inward emails provide insufficient information for the recipient to deal with quickly, efficiently, and effectively (Bunting 2004: 42). Indeed, Technology, Entertainment, & Design (TED) Curator Chris Anderson and TED contributor Jane Wulf et al. (n.d.) maintain that “the average time taken to respond to an email is greater, in aggregate, than the time it took to create.”

The Email Charter web site of Anderson & Wulf et al. (n.d.) explains:

The act of processing an email consists of much more than just reading. There is a) scanning an in-box, b) deciding which ones to open, c) opening them, d) reading them, e) deciding how to respond, f) responding – which may well involve writing an email of similar length back, g) getting back into the flow of your other work. . .[T]he arrival of even a two-sentence email that is simply opened, read and deleted can take a full minute of your available cognitive time.

This phenomenon can be thought of as a potent modern tragedy of the commons. The commons in question here is the world’s pool of attention. Email makes it just a little too easy to grab a piece of that attention. The unintended consequence of all those little acts of grabbing, is a giant rats nest of voracious demands on our time, energy and sanity.

Some economists/futurists such as Jeremy Rifkin (1995: 186) have asserted further: “The introduction of computerized technology has greatly accelerated the pace and flow of activity at the workplace, forcing millions of workers to adapt to the rhythms of a nanosecond culture”. In contrast to a traditional letter on paper, modern respondents feel strong pressures to answer emails immediately [witness the temptation to click on outside links in this post (versus the delay gratification of looking them up later) that will serve to lengthen and complicate your reading of this post]. Rifkin argues that ‘karioshi’ (Japanese for ‘work to death’) has become a worldwide phenomenon as a result. Indeed, not only the IT Revolution, but the Industrial Revolution and before that the Neolithic (agricultural) Revolution all increased productivity at the cost of the need to work longer and harder (Black n.d.).

A major study of working conditions in the UK identified information technology as the biggest single factor in work intensification, the increased pace of work, and named it as an important causal factor in growing pressures on workers to accede to demands for additional on-call accessibility beyond normal working hours (Bunting 2004: 28, 37, 40; cf. Schor 1991:22-3).

One of the participants at the AAM [recently renamed American Alliance of Museums] Annual Conference Session “Rising Expectations, Task Saturation, & Time Poverty for Museum Workers: Fully Loaded Camels Seeking Solutions” suggested the need for policies to deal with expectations surrounding dealing with after hours e-mail correspondence. Other recommendations in the wiki file “Solutions! Shared Working Document” located on the Museum Worker Task Saturation Wiki web site stress the need to manage email.

A Google search for “manage email” provides links to numerous tip sheets (cf. Microsoft 2012; MindTools 2012; Skellie 2012). One of the most common recommendations identified is to limit the ‘check my email’ temptation to no more than one or two times a day. This allows emails to be processed more efficiently in batches.

Although not mentioned on the Microsoft (2012) tip sheet, one simple way of controlling what might be considered as an ‘addiction’ to checking one’s email is simply to uncheck the default auto notification feature in Microsoft Outlook and other email [I also would add social media] programmes (Skellie 2012) so as to avoid that annoying pop-up enticing you to one more distraction from the current task. Indeed, ‘multitasking’ as commonly understood and ineffectively practised is psychologically impossible. Our brain merely jumps back and forth between–or among!–tasks attempted simultaneously. The need to restart & refocus creates significant loss of efficiency and accuracy (BBC 2010).

To help solve electronic message burdens imposed by IT, I believe all e-mail users should access and adhere to the Email Charter. To fix the ‘tragedy of the commons’ dilemma engendered by emails, the Charter asserts:

. . . a community needs to come together and agree on new rules. Email overload is something we are inadvertently doing to each other. You can’t solve this problem acting alone. You will end up simply ignoring, delaying, or rushing responses to many incoming messages, and risk annoying people or missing something great. That prospect is stressful.

But if we can mutually change the ground rules, maybe we can make that stress go away. That’s why it’s time for an Email Charter. Its core purpose is to reverse the underlying cause of the problem — the fact that email takes more time to respond to than it took to generate. Each of its rules contributes to that goal. If they are adopted, the problem will gradually ease.

Among the 10 principles proposed by the Charter are:

  • respect the recipient’s time. The onus is on the sender to minimise the time your communication will take to process (clearly descriptive Subject line, ask for specific response, avoid open-ended questions, be ultra-conservative with cc list, cut out elements of the email thread more than 3, avoid attachments in favour of entering text in the body, cut out unnecessary responses, e.g. ‘Thanks.’)
  • don’t add signatures that appear as files. These just waste time for the recipient clicking on them to ensure they are not missing anything.

Anderson & Wulf et al. (2012) maintain that we cannot solve the email problem in isolation. As I have argued elsewhere in other contexts (Thistle 2011), collective action is required.

In short, we all need to use and circulate the link to the Email Charter web site if we are to save each other from drowning in email.

References Cited:

Anderson, Chris & Wulf, Jane et al. (n.d.) Email Charter, http://emailcharter.org/index.html (accessed 6 October 2012).

BBC (2010) ‘Is Multi-Tasking a Myth?,’ BBC News Magazine 20, August http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-11035055 (accessed 8 October 2012).

Black, Bob (n.d.) ‘Featured Book Review: What is Wrong with this Picture? A Critique of Neo-Furturist’s Vision of the Decline of Work,’ WhyWork.org http://www.whywork.org/rethinking/whywork/critique.html (accessed 6 October 2012)

Bunting, Madeline (2004) Willing Slaves: How the Overwork Culture is Ruling Our Lives, London: HarperCollins Publishers.

Janes, Robert R. (2009) Museums in a Troubled World: Renewal, Irrelevance or Collapse?, New York: Routledge.

Microsoft (2012) Empty Your Inbox, Mississauga: Microsoft Canada Co. http://www.microsoft.com/atwork/productivity/email.aspx#fbid=Nrd1f5MQmND (accessed 28 September).

MindTools (2012) Managing Your Email Effectively: Strategies for Taming Your Inbox, Swindon, Wiltshire, UK: Mind Tools Ltd. http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/managing-email.htm (accessed 28 September).

Rifkin, Jeremy (1995) The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Schor, Juliet B. (1991) The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, New York: Basic Books.

Skellie, Daniel (2012) ‘10 Tips for Managing Email Effectively,’ Daily Blog Tips http://www.dailyblogtips.com/10-tips-for-managing-email-effectively/ (accessed 7 October).

Thistle, Paul C. (2011) ‘Problem Statement: Museum Workers as Fully Loaded Camels Standing in a Rain of Straws,’ Museum Worker Task Saturation Wiki http://groups.yahoo.com/group/museumworker/ (accessed 8 October 2012).