Don't Forget (Not To) Write
As we pivot away from the home office, consciously reforming our email practices will be crucial to a happier and saner work life
I am delighted to say that after a series of migrations and site-cleanings, The Chronicle of Higher Education has reposted its archive of Tenured Radical, the blog I wrote between 2006 and 2015. As I was scrolling down memory lane, I stumbled across one I wrote on August 8, 2014, which addresses an issue that has only gotten worse, not just since it was written seven years ago, but since most of us fled our campuses in March 2020. I needed a little break today, so I thought I would revise it for your reading pleasure.
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There are many ways for those of us who work at universities to waste our own, and everyone else’s, time, but email is a biggie. It has all the disadvantages of old-timey paper memos, with social media’s capacity for endless distraction. Since Covid-19, it has only gotten worse: sometimes, at the end of the day, my hands just hurt, and it isn’t because I finished that book proposal my agent is waiting for.
Some people manage this burden through avoidance. Every once in a while, someone I e-know on social media confesses to having upwards of four or five thousand emails in their inbox, many unopened, and all awaiting an answer of some kind. Probably about 3/5 of these are utterly useless, announcing talks that have already happened, legal notifications that Human Resources must send out (but no one understands), reminders of blown deadlines, and long chains discussing whatever happened at the last six faculty meetings.
I suspect many people are so afraid to look at what they haven’t done, as well as what they should do, that they are paralyzed: the emails sit there and loom. At least a fifth of these messages will be the same email, in which everyone on the recipient list has unnecessarily hit “reply all” multiple times.
To purge or not to purge: that is the question. And if, when you are drowning in email, you purge without reading, much less responding, is that a terrible thing?
Perhaps not. You know, and I know, that a lot of it is cr^p. As a historian, I worry that we will have an incomplete record of how intellectuals functioned after 1990 because our work, increasingly transferred to email, will not have been properly archived. On the other hand, do we really need to archive those pointless responses from people who love “reply all” emails that say: “Great!” “Agreed!” or “Just chiming in late to say that I think this is a terrific idea?”? Probably not. In fact, most of these emails never need to be sent in the first place.
Are you one of those academic snobs who think I waste time on Substackery and other forms of writing that seem frivolous to you? You should see the time I waste on email. Post-pandemic, I probably spend about three hours a day answering, filing, deleting, and purging this infernal tool. It’s like Japanese knotweed: it’s the only way to keep it under control, and yet every email you send guarantees between one and ten responses.
Years ago, a fellow blogger alerted me to an academic behavior that may account for those thousands of sad little unopened messages. When email spread to humanities and social sciences faculty in the early 1990s, many began to unconsciously use it as a to-do list, just as we used to pile all those paper memos on our desks, imagining that we might read them someday.
On the other hand, I make paper lists and use tools like Trello and Evernote to keep track of my obligations. Consequently, I rarely have more than twenty emails in my inbox, and sometimes, for a brief and beautiful period, there are as few as none. But that wasn’t always true, so here are a few things to think about as you wage your private war with your inbox.
We all forget about any message, regardless of how important, that is below the fold. Whatever you set your inbox at (mine shows 50 at a time), if you don’t keep the total number of messages, those you truly need to respond to, below that number. As an email slips to number 51 on the depth chart, it is likely to become….
Something I call a “flounder email:” these swim around down at the bottom of an increasingly crowded inbox, staring up at you with both eyes on one side of its head and creating greater dread as the task goes undone or the question unanswered. This, in turn, creates shame and an even more stubborn reluctance to open the email. Eventually, the task—whatever it is—becomes more or less irrelevant, except when it doesn’t, and it imposes an onerous burden on your colleagues and collaborators, who actually need information, an opinion, or a decision. Sadly, this then causes them to…
Send more emails to remind you of your responsibilities, sometimes filling everyone’s inbox with another email.
But it’s also important to remember that, as with any workplace issue, this wasn’t your problem to solve in the first place. Which leads us back to the question: why do we generate so much useless email, and why do we hit “reply all” when it would be just as easy in many cases to address a single person?
I think there are sound, if not good, reasons why “reply all” is so popular, and they are rooted in the fact that consultation is one of the core values of good colleagueship. If everyone knows that you have responded, everyone also knows that you are a team player. We also believe that if we have sent a reply to all -- regardless of how unnecessary the message--we have consulted (which may or may not be the case unless they open the email.) As a practical matter, when someone bellows: “WHY DIDN’T ANYONE CONSULT ME?” you can triumphantly produce the email string that they never opened and point out that it was their failure and not yours.
But actually, most people hit reply to all without thinking about why, thus generating long chains in which two or three people are consulting with each other, while the rest of us who are receiving your spam are wearing out our carpal tunnels by hitting “delete.” In addition, each recipient (if they are a responsible person) has to read (and perhaps file) each email to learn that she is not actually being addressed.
What’s the takeaway from this post? First, if you are an administrator or a department chair, please think about how—and why—you use email as we pivot back to on-site work. Please. But if you are an ordinary person, think about where email fits in the big picture of how you do your work. Start by cleaning out your inbox now. I begin by marking everything for deletion and then undeleting everything of value: this includes almost everything that is more than a month old. You can set up folders for the things that really matter, mark them in bulk, and file dozens simultaneously in the correct folder. Erase everything that is left and everything that you have not received in the last three weeks.
Most importantly, in your post-Covid life, don’t be a source of unnecessary email yourself. This might mean picking up the telephone, holding the issue until the next department meeting, or stretching your legs and walking a few dozen yards to someone else’s office to talk about it rather than writing a series of emails.
Most importantly: please think before you hit reply to all: the more unnecessary email we write and read, the less time we have for anything that matters.
Including reading this Substack. Or writing one yourself.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).
What I’m reading:
Yousef Munayyer on the multi-pronged, ongoing, disproportionate, and horrifying reign of Israeli terror against Palestinians in Israel (The Nation, May 13, 2021)
Do non-human animals benefit equally from living with people? Political theorist Hannah Arsenault-Gallant says no. (Public Seminar, May 12, 2021)
Once again, Howard University amps up its profile by appointing Phylicia Rashad as the school’s new Dean of the College of Fine Arts. (Maiysha Kai, The Root, May 12, 2021)