I returned from a short trip abroad to find hundreds upon hundreds of emails waiting for me. A small portion of them were filter-eluding spam, but almost all were from real human beings. Of those, perhaps one in five had an attachment which I was asked to read/review/critique. The length of said attachments varied from as few as three to more than 50 pages.
I got to the office at 6:30am and started grinding away at my email, killing each one off like a cell of a cancerous tumor. Yet like a cancer, my email rapidly grew back. Time and again I would send off a response to a week old email and simultaneously witness a new email appear in my queue. When I was away from the computer for awhile to answer the phone or meet with someone in person, it was even more discouraging: Half a dozen or more new emails had arrived in my absence.
At the end of a very long day, I had only reduced my in box by one third, despite eating my lunch at my desk while answering email. Masochistically, I counted the emails that had arrived that day and found that I receive a new one every 3 minutes. In exasperation and exhaustion, I said to myself aloud “I just can’t do this anymore”.
Many people have an automatic “out of office message” for when they are away from their email. I need, and I think many other people need, an automatic response message that reads something like this:
This is an auto-response message. I have received your email regarding X, or rather, my computer has, because I myself have not read it. It’s not that I am out of the office; I’m here. It’s not that I don’t like you, because there is a good chance that you are a friend, valued colleague or student of mine. But there is simply too much email for me to answer. Perhaps this is because the world is getting much more productive, but I doubt it. Rather I suspect that it is so easy to send email, including email with substantial requests for work attached, that we all do it far more casually than we would if we had to actually telephone someone or write and mail them a physical letter or talk to them to their face. This problem feeds itself as we all feel overwhelmed by our incoming email and respond by using our outgoing email to shift some of the incoming work burden onto others. There probably exists right now, somewhere on the Internet, a manuscript in need of comment that is being passed on to the hundredth potential reader, none of whom had time to review it and so emailed it on to someone else with a note saying “Could you read this over and tell me what you think?” (A skilled mathematician could no doubt calculate the likelihood that this daisy chain will someday grow to the point that the manuscript eventually returns, unscathed, to its original author).
Like you, I have been a victim and perpetrator in this process, so I ascribe no blame to you for sending me email nor am I asking you to change your behavior. Rather, I have decided to unilaterally lay down arms because I simply cannot keep up anymore. I therefore may or may not read your email, and if I read it I may or may not respond. I hereby free you to take the same approach to my email, without recrimination. On the other hand, if something is important enough for you to stop by for a chat, the coffee is on me.