November 15th, 2009


The email of the species

Further to yesterday's post on the other blog: of course, a lot of my problems with email are problems with me. (I'm keeping this here because it's more about me and my fail and my angst, and as such it definitely belongs on LiveJournal!) So, some bad email behaviours:

If it's still in my inbox, I haven't failed at it yet

All those awkward emails I never replied to; emails I don't want to reply to, but want to remember that I haven't replied to yet; information emails where I still think I'll do something with the information -- blog about it, post it to another mailing list, complain to someone about it, sign up for something, buy something, sell something... Failing to do something may be bad, but failing to commit to not doing it is in some ways worse: the thing still doesn't get done, but the brain's request tracker keeps the ticket open forever. It's like a big guilty memory-leak. And the inbox slowly fills up with things that aren't really in my 'in' tray any more, they're in my 'fail' tray; so the inbox becomes nothing but a screenful of fail. Some of the mails in my inbox have been there for six months.

(I have a similar problem with food that's probably gone off: I don't want to eat it, but I don't want to throw it away, because that's a waste -- and then I will have 'failed'. So I put it back in the cupboard, as if it was somehow going to recover from having gone off, or as if I was going to be more likely to want to eat it when it's gone even further past its best.)

I read email when I know I don't have time to reply to it

This always seems like a good idea -- it seems as though it should give me more warning of tasks coming up, more time to start thinking about a reply. In practice, it just means that I've mentally moved the email to the queue of "things I haven't replied to" (i.e., things which I feel faintly guilty about) before I've even had a chance to act on it. It's like having a "select all > mark as FAIL" option in my inbox.

I agonise about the wording of even the most trivial emails

I think part of the problem here is that I get so irritated by emails where the sender clearly hasn't thought about them at all, and I can't bear the thought that I might end up looking like that sort of person. This would be fine if it just encouraged me to write clearly, but in practice it means that even a simple request-for-information email (the sort of thing that should be one line long and take about 30 seconds) takes a ridiculously long time to write. Emails to friends are far harder. I can draft and redraft and even 'finish' writing an email -- but increasingly it feels impossible to commit to pressing 'send', and I'll hit 'cancel' instead. It's not the emotional/informational content of the email that's the problem, it's just the wording; nothing ever sounds right. There are really alarmingly few people I can talk to in email without worrying too much about my wording (I'm married to one of them).

Perhaps I should have had a 'reply to all emails on the day they arrive' month instead of wittering away on LiveJournal.

I still believe that email is something that doesn't take any time

I don't intellectually believe this, of course, but some bit of my brain obviously reckons that email is something that doesn't need any time allocated to it, something I can just fit in between other things. The more I wrestle with time-management, the more I think that the most important things to remember are that time is finite and everything takes time. (Arnold Bennett writes more effectively about this than I do in How to live on 24 hours a day.) I have tried estimating and then recording how much time I spend "checking email"; the results are frightening. At work, I've recently been trying to set time-slots for "dealing with email" and actually stick to them; I usually massively overrun (or under-allocate time, depending on how you look at it).

To be fair, actually, it's not just email that I seem to think shouldn't take any time; most of the things which never get done (or which I struggle to get done) are things to which I don't consciously allocate any time. I think the myth of multitasking is partly to blame for this.

Stopping here because a) I didn't have much more to say anyway, b) I want to allocate some time to actually getting some sleep, and to do that I need to get away from the computer, and c) it's probably good for me to just post the damn thing and stop agonising.