I must confess something. A few times in my career, during periods of insane stress and compounding deadlines, I found myself fantasizing about committing a certain business-world heresy. I often thought, what if I just give up on email? Say no to the constant flow of time-suck crossing my screen? Could I really cut that whole part of work out of the picture, leaving me free to concentrate on Real Work?
To be fair, these were days when several massive projects needed to get done at once, or weeks of late nights and early mornings approaching a brick-solid deadline. Times when difficult tasks required all I could give, and possibly more. I wondered if I could just sort of wander into the digital woods for a while.
Okay, so, real talk: I tried it.
Into the Wild
Selectively, of course. When the head of my department emailed, I wrote back. When a collaborator on the all-important project sent over proofs, I opened them. But when emails were just the normal noise of a midsize company, or outside contacts sending questions about projects that were months away, or, really, anything else that didn’t relate to the several crises at hand … I let them slip.
I ran my eyeballs over those subject lines and sender names like they were white linoleum. I let the messages dribble down through my inbox like little raindrops, splashing into puddles of obscurity. Maybe I flagged a few to make sure I got back to them later. Mostly I just watched them sit there, unopened, and felt a strange sense of liberation. (Maybe a little guilt.)
I thought that if I dammed up one stream of communication, the important stuff would reach me by some other route altogether. If something super important comes up, I’ve got a phone. Co-workers know where my desk is. I’m already putting in all the hours I possibly can. Something has got to go, and email is the lowest priority.
The Dam Breaks
It worked for a while. What I had accidentally discovered was batching (if “batching” means never looking at email ever again). When planned out by a rational mind, it can be an effective work strategy. I wasn’t necessarily a rational mind then. It was more a survival mechanism born out of panic and lack of sleep.
Eventually, that dam broke and the work I’d tried to keep at bay caught up with me.
Ever since then, I’ve been wondering: In an age where everyone is striving for new words to convey how busy they are (“swamped,” “slammed,” “crushed,” “buried” — words that have a strikingly morbid tone, I might add), could we somehow all agree to simply de-prioritize email? Given that studies show decreased job satisfaction among those who use email the most, could we simply decide that it’s not as vital as anyone’s actual work? Could we just say no to the constant, involuntary pinging of little messages demanding our time?
According to every email and business etiquette consultant I could find, the answer, unfortunately, is no.
Don’t Turn Your Back on the Sea of Email
“Do you ignore communications in business? You don’t,” says Judith Kallos, who has been coaching people on digital etiquette for more than 20 years. “And whether you like it, or it’s difficult, or it may push boundaries you’re not comfortable with, it doesn’t matter. If you can’t handle the job, then get another job.”
But what if you give people a clear warning about your unreachability? I know of a writer who, while composing a book, put up an email away message for a year — a year! — saying he was unreachable. That’s certainly extreme, but what about a declared absence from the inbox of a few days, or a week?
“Not acceptable,” Kallos says. “You want to be successful? You’ve got to respond in two hours. You don’t get the luxury of saying I’m going to respond to you within two days. People will see that and go, ‘What if I have a problem?’”
“Some people may be able to get away with that, but most of us can’t,” Pachter told me. “If I’m your customer and you send out an email saying I can’t be reached for the next week, and I have a problem, what am I going to do?”
Build a Smarter Dam
It’s a fair point. The email experts I talked to agreed that everyone struggles with a mountain of queries and comments. But while we’re all buried under bulging inboxes, we simultaneously struggle with what The New York Times called “the anxiety of the unanswered email” — that abyss of silence into which our worst workplace fears fall. Digital communication thus gets us coming and going: We receive far more of it than we can handle, yet grind our teeth when our own messages go unanswered.
The only solution, according to the experts, is to develop a successful strategy for dealing with email. That can mean allowing yourself to check email only twice a day, thus limiting its intrusiveness (smart batching!), or trying to maintain “inbox zero.”
Manage Distractions. There are a variety of ways to regulate the flow of email into your inbox to regulate the flow and compartmentalize.
Categorize Early and Often. Put thought into how you set up your mail folders with an eye to prioritizing the more important emails from the less important ones.
Respond Quickly. The metaphor of the dam breaking really applies here. Get stuff through your inbox so it doesn’t pile up.
“It’s a skill,” Kallos says. “People hate when I say that, because it’s just email, but it’s a skill.”
Pachter allowed that during emergencies, it might be okay to pass off important emails to coworkers if it’s absolutely necessary. But the experts agreed that an overload of email is just something we must find a way to handle, no matter what’s happening at work or in our personal lives.
“Everybody is trying to make technology what they’re willing to deal with, and it just doesn’t work that way,” Kallos said. “Technology is what it is; it’s going to move on without you, so you either embrace it, or get off the train.”
So, I guess my dream that we can all somehow say no to email forever will have to remain just a dream for now — a sleep-deprived dream.