The tyranny of email

19.05.10 | Posted in General

I went to a brekky this morning and American author John Freeman was the speaker. Freeman is in Australia for the Sydney Writer’s Festival and he was discussing the content of his book – Shrinking the World: The 4000-year story of how email came to rule our lives.

Email in a bottle

All heads were nodding in agreement as he demonstrated how email has come to rob us of a sense of context and a sense of priorities. He also said email is responsible for making us ‘partially available’ to our families. I loved the way he put that – ‘partially available’. I’ve certainly been guilty of simultaneously being with my daughter or husband while checking my inbox. I’m never fully available when I’m trying to do both.

He rattled off a couple of statistics that might surprise you. 35 trillion emails were sent last year and of those emails, around 50% of them were misunderstood. He explained that when we limit communication to emails, we just miss out on so much context – eye contact, body language, intonation of voice – and this can leave the message lost in translation.

Freeman talked about how email can be biologically addictive, just like gambling. Just as a gambler may sit in front of the poker machine, mindlessly pressing the button over and over; so too can email addicts who make the send/receive button their friend, repeatedly clicking on it to get their next fix.

Freeman doesn’t claim to be an efficiency expert or claim to have the answers to combat email addiction, but he has de-cluttered his life by following a few simple rules:

  1. Before you hit the send button, ask yourself “Do I really need to send this?”
  2. Don’t check emails first thing in the morning or last thing at night
  3. Check it twice a day
  4. Keep a written to do list (you know – with pen and paper)
  5. Give good email and keep messages short
  6. Read the entire incoming email before replying
  7. Do not debate complex or sensitive matters by email
  8. If you have to work as a group by email, make sure you meet everyone face to face first where possible
  9. Set up your workstation to do something else besides email
  10. Schedule some media free time. No computer. No phone. No TV.

I’m definitely going to implement some of the above disciplines, starting with some media free time every day. What about you? Have any of the above ideas worked for you or do you have an even better suggestion?


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  1. Sally

    Too, too true. Have just sent this blog to my husband who is so terrible at the blackberry all weekend, just to check. I always say “it will still be there on Monday when you get to work and you can’t do anything about it now, so why is it even in your hand?” his reply is “just in case”. I would not ever dare say in reply ” well just in case that bus over there hits me in five minutes, would you mind talking we me instead of the blackberry” :-)

    It is a trap that I think we all feel we will miss out on something if we don’t look at our emails or text messages every 5 minutes. What we are missing out on is life, the real life right in front of us.

    I heard a saying once that I loved, I can’t remember where i heard it but it has stuck in my head for many years “email, texting, mobiles, blackeberry…all they have done is not allow us the most beautiful moment in life and that is the ability to miss each other”

    Thought provoking blog Emma, as always!

    Sal x