We need to change our unhealthy attitude about email before civilization collapses

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[Image description: Someone sitting at a wooden desk holding an iPhone. on the desk is an open laptop. The image is only focused on the hands, which have purplish nail polish and a golden ring each, and gadgets. Image by William Iven of Unsplash.com]

If you are like me, your email inbox is an overflowing compost pile of festering guilt and existential despair. I get between 150 to 200 emails per day. Sure, half of them are stupid (although, can we really call a discussion thread focused on Netflix’ breathtaking animated series Castlevania stupid?) But that still leaves 75 to 100 messages that actually need a response or some type of action. It’s impossible to get through all of them. Then they multiply, including the “Did you get my last email?” and “Hey, just following up on the email I sent last week” and “The team noticed you’ve been tearing out your hair and cussing a lot lately when opening your laptop. Are you OK?”

No, I’m not OK. You’re not OK! None of us are OK, OK?! Email is out of control! It’s horrible yet addictive yet efficient yet awful! All of us are looking for ways to manage the murky cesspool that is our emails. If you google “email overwhelm,” it’ll come up with 481,000 hits, including hundreds of articles with advice like “only check your emails at designated time” and “create filters to automatically file many messages” and “do what Jeff Bezos does” (Start a multi-billion dollar tech company and hire people to answer your emails).

These tips get to the symptoms of the problem, not the cause. And the cause is adaptive, cultural. We’ve bought into a culture of email with a series of unwritten rules about how we should act and FEEL in response to emails. We’ve been trained by this culture to feel bad if we don’t respond to messages within a day or two. We’ve internalized the philosophy that the messages we never asked to receive are somehow our responsibilities, with all the emotions around success and failure that come with being responsible people.

And we’ve been conditioned to believe it’s a personal slight to us if our emails go unanswered. Even I, someone who is overwhelmed by emails and should be empathetic, get irritated after spending 30 minutes composing a heartfelt message only to not hear a single peep from the recipient! What, like you have better things to do, Kenny Loggins! (Just kidding, Mr. Loggins! #ILoveYouAsMuchAsILoveTheOxfordComma #PleaseReturnToVusCorner)

A while ago, the Email Charter came out, with a great list of agreements we should all make to reduce emails, including not CC’ing people all the time, having clear subject lines, nixing attachments, being ok with short responses, etc.. But it’s been a few years now, and the problem still persists. And it will continue. If you google “death of email,” it comes up with 56,200,000 hits. But I think this is wishful thinking. Email is always going to be around. Forever. Even when our individual consciousness is downloaded into robotic bodies, allowing us to defy mortality and explore the universe, we’ll still be opening our inboxes on Saturn’s moon Enceladus and feeling like crap.

So, I propose a series of agreements we need to make, not about technical actions we need to take around emails, but about the attitudes with and perceptions of emails. These agreements are just a start, and may change, but overall, we need to redefine our unhealthy relationship with emails. Because the fate of civilization as we know it is at stake. Or at least it’ll just continue to be very annoying, which is just as bad.  

  1. Most emails responses are a courtesy, not a requirement. If we’re paid to respond to clients’ complaints or collaborate with our colleagues, for examples, then understandably it’s our responsibility to answer emails. But so many emails are ones that we never asked for, and that fall outside our scope of work, so why do we treat them as things we are responsible for, leading to us all being angry at one another when we don’t respond? Let’s try to be courteous to one another and respond when we can, but except as related to the essential duties of our work, no one owes us a response and we do not owe anyone one either. That sounds cold, but it’s actually very generous and liberating.
  2. We accept that we cannot respond to every email we receive, and that’s OK. Sure, there may be policies like “we respond to all clients’ emails within 48 hours.” Depending on your work, a quick response is essential. But I’ve seen blanket requirements like “respond to all emails, no matter what they are about, within 24 hours.” I had a colleague whose workplace had that rule, and I was tempted to send her random messages like “I think wavy potato chips are better than non-wavy ones. What are your thoughts?” Let’s just accept that no matter how hard we try, for many of us, we are not going to be able to respond to everything with the care and attention we think it deserves. Or at all. And that’s OK. It does not make us bad people, and it does not reflect on the worthiness of the person who emailed us.
  3. We do not get annoyed with people when they follow up: On the other end of the wombat, let’s also be generous with one another when we do follow up after not getting a response. Remember when we didn’t have emails, and we called each other all the time? Kind of? Yeah, it happened. Now, the only time some of us will call anyone is to follow up on an email. And some of us get annoyed that we were called even for that. Let’s all lighten up. If we don’t respond for some reason, let’s agree not to get annoyed at people when they email a second or third time, or call, or try other channels to reach us. Within reason, of course. After eight times and no response, for example, it’s best to assume Kenny Loggins is not interested in collaborating with you on Nonprofit The Musical, and not take it personally.
  4. Our email inboxes are not a measurement of job effectiveness or personal worth. Look, if you achieved “Inbox Zero,” that’s great (though stop rubbing it in everyone’s face; that’s irritating). Just like if you successfully climbed Mt. Everest, that’s awesome. But that does not make you a better human being or more effective at your job than when your inbox was a dumpster fire, and it does not signify that you are better at your job than I am at mine. We have unconsciously associated a clean inbox with professionalism, effective communication, and personal accountability. This is unrealistic and unhealthy. Our inboxes are not to-do lists! Many people accomplish amazing things, and their inboxes are horrendous. Heck, answering emails too often may lead to a lack of productivity.
  5. We absolve one another of the guilt we feel over emails: You may have seen the viral tweet by journalist Marissa Miller last year that goes “adulthood is emailing ‘sorry for the delayed response!’ back and forth until one of you dies.” We apologize a lot in emails for being late in responding. I was doing this, until colleague Nancy Long of 501 Commons told me to knock it off. She’s right. We all need to knock it off. Let’s stop apologizing, because it creates an ongoing chain. As soon as you write it, then the person you wrote it to now internalizes that if they don’t respond quickly, they too must apologize, perpetuating unrealistic expectations and undeserved feelings of guilt and self-loathing over something as simple as the fact that all of us are busy AF (The soul-crushing effects of busy-ness is an important topic for a future post).
  6. We do not use email as a way to avoid face-to-face conversations: Probably because we all know that everyone is stressed and overwhelmed by email, we often use it as a shield to avoid sometimes more difficult face-to-face or on-the-phone interactions. It is often easier and psychologically more comfortable to pour ourselves into a lengthy email than to talk to people, which leaves room for misinterpretation of tone and content, possibly initiating or furthering conflicts. (Thanks to colleague Diane D’Angelo for bringing this one up)
  7. We do not let email overshadow our families, friends, hobbies, and stuff we care about: Email, as a communication tool, can be an effective way to stay in touch or reconnect with the people we love, and to get involved with activities that energize us. And yet, ironically, its addictive nature and the accompanying guilt around it often prevents these interactions. How many times are we checking and answering emails on our phones instead of playing with our kids, calling our parents, doing our hobbies, or heck, even sleeping? Let’s prioritize. Our emails will always be there—millennia from now, I’m sure some archeologist will be poring through our hilarious forwards—but the people we love, and the things we care about, won’t.
  8. These agreements apply to other forms of communications: I’ve been feeling like a terrible human being lately because besides emails, I am also behind on responding to tweet mentions, Facebook messages, blog comments, LinkedIn messages, and other forms of communications. I feel awful, because I love getting comments and mentions and messages, but then I just have no time or—with two kids under five—energy to respond to each one. You might be feeling that way too. Let’s agree to try our best, but also be understanding with one another and treat our communications like joyful bits of interactions, not additional work.

I’m sure we can all come up with a more comprehensive list of agreements. Write your thoughts in the comment section. But there you go. Email has become the Danger Zone. But the bottom line is, we’re not bad people just because our inboxes have 17,000 emails. You’re not a bad person when you respond “late.” I’m not a bad person when I sometimes don’t respond at all. Let’s meet each other halfway. We are busy people doing important stuff and our inboxes do not define our worth! I’m sure Kenny Loggins would agree. 

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Donate, or give a grant, to Vu’s organizationRainier Valley Corps, which has the mission of bringing more leaders of color into the nonprofit sector and getting diverse communities to work together to address systemic issues.

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13 thoughts on “We need to change our unhealthy attitude about email before civilization collapses

  1. Irene Rabinowitz

    Yes. Our team uses WhatsApp messages within the team as well as emails. After one night when I had an email exchange at midnight with our CEO, I WhatsApped him to “go to sleep” and told myself to do the same. I sent the same message again last night at 23:00 knowing that he was probably still going through the emails received that day. We need to break the email hostage syndrome.

  2. Kate Hitchcock

    A colleague taught me about categorising, which has been really helpful. All my emails get colour coded and allocated a priority/ action level ie does it need to be actioned today, is it ok to action within a week, is it something I can read at leisure, am I waiting for something before I can reply, etc. Some just get straight up deleted. That way even if I have 100 messages in my inbox, I know that only 25 are actually urgent, which helps to keep it manageable. Otherwise I think I could spend all day just replying to emails!

  3. Carolyn Weis Muckelberg

    This is so timely as I just calendared one hour each day dedicated to email. Can we talk about texting and its appropriate role in the manager/direct report dynamic? it seems some [EDs] have given up on email as effective communication and now my life is riddled with group texts that are borderline micromanagement with an added expectation to acknowledge and respond to each text. They fill me with rage as everything has already been addressed via email with supporting documentation and necessary follow up and all that work is rotting in their inbox. It takes every fiber of self-control to not just text back “check your email”. Every. Single. Time. But I’m not bitter…

  4. Shannon Tracey

    Thanks Vu! Can we include “Inbox” in your next list of non-profit jargon, and rename it “The Danger Zone?” I was expecting all the Kenny Loggins build-up to lead to something like that. And now I am going to sing that song in my head every time I open up my email and see that I have nearly 20,000 unread messages, and smile. (Or maybe out loud, depending on what kind of day it is.)

  5. bettybarcode

    The problem here is that email, unlike snail mail, is essentially free. There are no price signals telling users the true cost of this medium. The simple email request that takes you 5 minutes to compose & send to a cultural organization or other nonprofit might require an hour’s research or other work to answer.

    Assuming you & the person receiving your query both have the same wage of $30/hour, you just invested $5 of your labor to get $30 worth of someone else’s labor. With a return like that, who *doesn’t* have an incentive to send as much email as possible? Email is a huge cost-shifting problem.

    If we had to pay $.50/per message every time we hit Send, just like we do for snail mail, a lot of inessential email would evaporate overnight.

    1. Amanda Gustin

      Whoa, I’ve never thought about it that way, but it makes total sense. Thank you for that great new perspective, and I’ll be dreaming about implementing a cost-per-email now.

  6. Laura Torres

    Thanks for the reminder…I need to be more forgiving on no responses…its crazy how easily we can fall into the trap of perpetuating unhealthy habits…

  7. Carolyn Owens

    Email Jail a colleague used to call it. May I add what I call “sand bagging” to the list? That’s where you start another topic under an existing topic. Makes it impossible to find that information again if you have to search for it, although I am guilty of this too.
    I agree with number 1 especially, haven’t we all thought, geez how many “thank you” and “have a great weekend” back and forth is going to go on? Be done already!
    I think smart phones have made this all so much worse. I cringed when I read Irene’s post, please turn off your notifications or ignore messages past business hours, and read Vu’s post about self-care 🙂

  8. Helen Lakeru

    In the subject line if really important for people to read and reply- especially for our board members we include Action: Please Read and Reply.
    If “Action” is not in the subject line, then fair game on whether they read and reply.
    We don’t overuse it. This is generally not useful for internal/ staff comms. We do try to change the subject line when, for instance, we are adding a new subject or changing the subject in the middle of an email thread- because the ED suffers from flight of ideas… What was I saying?

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