How email took over our lives

How to save yourself from the storm

It's hard to imagine now, but there was a time when email represented a quantum leap for productivity.

In the mid 90s, when Outlook, Lotus Notes and Hotmail rode the internet revolution into town, organisations that were used to moving no faster than a physical piece of paper were thrust into hyperspace.

The combined speed, ease and breadth of communication was unlike anything that had been seen before.

But, at some point over the next 20 years, something went drastically wrong.

Email mutated from a useful tool into a many-headed hydra that now terrorises us throughout our working day and claws at what remains of our personal lives.

Put your hand up if you receive more emails than you could ever reply to.

Keep it in the air if checking email is one of the first things you do when you wake up, and one of the last before you go to sleep?

Yep, me too.

And we’re not doing ourselves any favours.

The email storm is stressing us out

A recent Loughborough University study monitored heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels in saliva found and that 83% of workers became stressed by using email.

On top of that, just 14% actually reported suffering from increased stress levels when they did it – most people either didn’t recognise what was happening to them or, more worryingly, had become so used to being stressed that they thought it was par for the course.

For a while now, strategies have been developed to help deal with the onslaught.

Declare yourself bankrupt

For a while now, strategies have been developed to help deal with the onslaught.

In 2004, the American copyright lawyer Lawrence Lessig set a trend for declaring ‘email bankruptcy’ when he sent out a mass message that asked anyone with unanswered email to re-send it, if they thought it was important enough to warrant a response.

But if you did that and it worked, how long would it be before you were tempted to do it again?

And would people interpret your voluntary default – in response to messages that they had taken time out of their own day to write and send – as a declaration of self-importance? It could only ever be a temporary solution.

Blue sky thinking from Kathryn Parsons

Last year, the CEO and co-founder of coding and digital education company Decoded pressed the big red button, and took the nuclear option.

Being at the head of a growing company meant that Kathryn Parsons found herself having to keep track of multiple projects simultaneously, while also often being in back-to-back meetings for 10 hours of the day.

“All emails would come my way, it was totally unmanageable.”

Kathryn Parsons, CEO and Co-founder at Decoded

Her response was to do away with email and, instead, rely primarily on Slack, a system that combines multiple forms of messaging and file sharing in one app (accessible via desktop and mobile), and divides projects or conversations into channels that are designed to make it easy and efficient for colleagues to stay up to date – and to avoid wasting time on stuff that’s not relevant.

“For me, coming off email was a bit like going cold turkey,” says Parsons.

“But when we introduced it, the reaction was insane. It was such a clear sign that people are overwhelmed, totally fed-up and exhausted by email. They hate it. People said ‘Oh my God, I want to do that! I can’t focus, I can’t concentrate, I’m constantly being bombarded.’ And being effective at work is absolutely crucial.”

The next email?

Buoyed by a breakneck increase in valuation – it’s reckoned to have doubled to $2.8bn inside five months – Slack has hogged much of the limelight, but it is just one of a number of similar solutions.

HipChat, Yammer, Asana (which the team at The Memo and I used to work on this article) and task-management systems such as ActiveInbox and SaneBox are all designed to streamline communication and improve workflow.

Gmail, too, has just introduced its Inbox app, which makes it easier to file emails and organise to-do lists based on things and people that are important.

On that theme, a startup called Ringly has developed jewellery that can be programmed to buzz discreetly when people who you actually want to hear from contact you by email, message or phone.

For the other end of the spectrum, Unroll.Me is an easy way of getting rid of all those unwanted newsletters with just one click. Although, I admit that when I received an unsolicited email from the company that claimed it could rid me of... unsolicited emails, I initially thought it was a joke.

And not everybody is convinced that these new measures will make much of a difference.

Professor Tom Jackson, one of the academics who worked on the Loughborough University study, says it’s not the technology itself that we should worry about, but the way that people use it.

“The thing that sets email apart from phone calls or talking to people in person is the frequency and number of interactions that we receive”

Professor Tom Jackson, Loughborough University

“The brain can only deal with eight to 15 tasks at a time. So when there are new tasks coming in, unless you’re closing those tasks down just as quickly, you’re going to become overloaded and unproductive.”

He adds that “silver-bullet technologies” such as Slack (pictured right) and other messaging apps “still cause the same problem.”

One answer may be to simply improve the way that we email.

Claire Burge, owner of Get Organised Ireland, became so dispirited by email’s effect on her productivity that she embarked on an experiment to live without it.

It was supposed to last for 12 months, but two years later is still going. She reckons it has given her an extra three hours of time in each working day.

But Burge also recognises that not everyone can commit to going cold turkey straight away.

She tells me (via a quick phone call and subsequent Skype chat) that in those cases, it's better to start by following some simple rules of etiquette, such as only replying to people when necessary, and letting recipients know when you don’t expect a response by adding ‘NNTR’ (no need to reply) to the end of messages.

For people who really do want to eliminate email, though, she says that half-measures won’t cut it. It requires a complete overhaul of the way people work and communicate; an unequivocal commitment to doing things in a new way.

The end in sight?

There’s a twist in the tale.

When pressed, even the most passionate anti-email evangelists admit they still use it.

The people at Slack tell me (by email) that they don’t expect email to ever go away entirely, because it’s “the lowest common denominator of communication,” while Parsons has gone back to at least checking her email at the beginning and end of each day.

Burge still has an account that she uses to register for things, or to make online purchases, although she does stress that she can see a time when email is a thing of the past.

Based on his research, Professor Jackson says that ‘batching’ – the process popularised by Tim Ferris, author of the #1 New York Times bestseller, The 4 Hour Work Week – is the most effective way of tackling the problem.

It involves setting strict limits on when email is accessed; outside of those windows, you get on with work without interruption.

But it’s easy to see how that could cause difficulty when an immediate response really is needed.

Perhaps, then, it’s time for a 139-year-old technology, the phone call, to make something of a comeback (after all, The Memo has just proved that it can change).

Either way, Jackson is adamant that something has to be done, and soon. “A certain amount of stress is good,” he says. “But high levels can lead to diabetes, heart disease and all those sorts of things. Potentially, it’s a time bomb.”

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