Escaping Email Hell

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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

9 thoughts on “Escaping Email Hell”

  1. Hear, hear. The priority for one’s attention has to be in some proportion to the trouble taken by the person seeking it. So it’s in this order:
    1. Personal visit.
    2. Handwritten note.
    3. Typed personal letter.
    4. Phone call. I think it’s rude to interrupt a face-to-face conversation to take a call.
    5 E-mail.
    I don’t know where instant messages fit in to this which is one reason I don’t subscribe to them. Comments on one’s blogs come pretty high by the same logic.

    1. Instant messages would go between phone calls and email. You have to figure in not only the trouble taken to contact you but the immediacy of the message. An IM likely means there’s a person waiting for a response (but their attention may have already moved on to something else). Similar to your strategy, I leave IM off as much as possible. There’s no law that says I have to be always available all the time. I deliberately leave home without my cell phone when I just want to live life where I find it.

  2. You are not alone! I just heard a piece on the radio yesterday about the “Email charter,” an attempt to set up a system a acceptable etiquette for more productive email. It’s at Enjoy!

  3. Think of it like the phone, back in the old days. Just ignore them. If it’s important enough, they’ll email again.

    1. That’s a good start, but if he’s really getting a dozen or so e-mails an hour he needs to figure out a way to get a handle on the problem or he’ll just go mad.

      You might try a new e-mail address that you only give out to people at the top of your priority/responsibility list, scanning the old account once a day or so for something important and then deleting the rest unread.

  4. Please make sure you suspend or unsubscribe from ALL group mailings that resend your mail before setting up an out-of-office autoreply. Emails storms are no fun to manage.

    1. This issue has been largely fixed at the software end. That is, either the bounce message is only sent to any given address once a day or the lists block multiple messages with similar content. Either way, instances of recursive loops involving vacation bounce are extraordinarily rare.

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