The Email Hour

Trying something new in my ongoing battle with email.

Yes, I’m writing about email again. Yes, I hate myself for it. But not as much as I hate email.

I thought it was an appropriate day to write this post since it’s the 10th birthday of Gmail, the rare service that seems both equally loved and hated. Loved, because it has made email almost tolerable over the past decade. Hated because it is still email.

After searching and searching and searching for a solution to my email problems with new technology, I’m finally realizing there will never be a true solution. Because the problem is us.

As no less that Gmail creator Paul Buchheit explained to Harry McCracken today:

The problem with email now is that the social conventions have gotten very bad. There’s a 24/7 culture, where people expect a response. It doesn’t matter that it’s Saturday at 2 a.m.–people think you’re responding to e-mail. People are no longer going on vacation. People have become slaves to email.
It’s not a technical problem. It can’t be solved with a computer algorithm. It’s more of a social problem.

The quote lines up perfectly with something I read the other day, a post riffing off of some of the ideas in the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Curry. Breaking down “the daily routines of geniuses”, Sarah Green summarizes one key take-away as follows:

A clear dividing line between important work and busywork. Before there was email, there were letters. It amazed (and humbled) me to see the amount of time each person allocated simply to answering letters. Many would divide the day into real work (such as composing or painting in the morning) and busywork (answering letters in the afternoon). Others would turn to the busywork when the real work wasn’t going well. But if the amount of correspondence was similar to today’s, these historical geniuses did have one advantage: the post would arrive at regular intervals, not constantly as email does.

I think I can draw from this a new experiment to try. From now on (or at least, for an indeterminate set amount of time), I’m going to try to only respond to email at a set time during each day. I’m going to put an hour (or perhaps two) in my calendar for this at the end of the day. And in that hour (or two), I’m not going to do anything besides email.

I will often likely enjoy a beer while doing this, as a reward.

I know that there will be situations which require me to break this rule from time-to-time — time-sensitive issues at work, or whatnot. But I’m hoping and guessing that those issues will be outliers. And ideally, people will learn to get ahold of me other, more immediate ways in such times.

Will such a system work? I’m not sure. But we’ll see. At the very least, “answering letters” sounds more enticing than “doing email”.