Unanswered emails were the bane of my life - until I spent a month in search of inbox nirvana

02-08 14:14

At 5.10pm on New Year’s Day, I had 16,516 unread emails in my inbox.

At 5.11pm on New Year’s Day, my inbox was empty.

As chaos vanished to nothingness, a euphoric feeling of purity washed over me. Bright sunshine burst through the windows turning my living room gold and, from nowhere, a heavenly choir sang. I decided I was probably quite hungover, and went back to bed.

I remember when getting an email was quite exciting. I opened my first account as a pre-teen, not long after Hotmail brought electronic mail to the masses in 1996. It was a simpler time, when emails were deemed thrilling enough to form the entire premise of Nora Ephron’s 1998 film You’ve Got Mail , and audiences around the world watched and thought, “Yes! I too have received emails!”, and loved it. My first address was the mortifying thehottestfemale@hotmail.com, and boy, was I proud of that pun.

Times have changed: I am no longer the hottest female at hotmail.com (I have moved to Gmail); punny email addresses are no longer justifiable; and receiving emails is no longer fun. How could it be, when we spend around 28% of our time in the office in our inboxes , and 40% of us check work emails at least five times a day outside of working hours.

It is not healthy, either. “This ‘always on’ culture of emails is killing people,” says Professor Sir Cary Cooper , an organisational psychologist at Manchester Business School. “It leads to worry, anxiety, depression, and physical ill-health. There’s a whole field now called technostress, and the evidence is that unconstrained emails, where there is no guidance by employers, are damaging for people’s health.”

Governments and businesses are beginning to respond: in January 2017, French employees had their “right to disconnect” from work emailsenshrined in law and last month Uwe Hück of Porsche mooted that emails sent to workers outside of working hours should be returned to sender . In Cooper’s experience, many British companies have no policy: “We’re way behind in the UK,” he says. Jean Gomes, founder of The Energy Project consultancy , tells me, “These embargoes on time just limit peoples’ freedom, and they find workarounds, sending stuff by WhatsApp. We have to be able to manage those boundaries ourselves.”

But what can we do? Since I started working, I’ve never felt in control of my emails, and that is how I ended up with 16,516 unread ones. When I tell Cooper, he sounds genuinely outraged: “That’s appalling!” When friends saw my number, their eyes widening in revulsion, I took a perverse pride in their horror. There was something delicious in the slutty slovenliness of my unkempt inbox; it was my anarchic rebellion against the tyranny of digital efficiency.

For years, this has been my “system”: if an email arrived that looked very important and required time and consideration for its response, I would decide to go back to it later, and mark it “unread”. And if an email arrived that looked liked junk, I would not open it, just leave it unread. Get it? The junk emails ended up looking exactly the same as the very important emails. Haha! Ah.

Well, not any more. This is the year I clean up. I have decided to try out four methods of managing my inbox, and find one that works for me. So on 1 January, I selected all 48,293 conversations, and clicked “archive”. (Not “delete”. I’m not a monster.) And then they were gone. Inbox zero.

My email diary

Week 1: inbox zero

The heady bliss of having zero messages lasts for the minute before I receive a new email. And then another. They are dirtying my nice clean inbox.

I watch the talk Merlin Mann gave to Google employees in 2007 , in which he elaborated on his concept of inbox zero: “The single practice that I think could really change your life starting today is to process to zero. Process to zero every time you check your email. You never check your email without processing.” Processing involves one of five potential actions: delete/archive, delegate, defer, respond, or do. Once I have spent 58 minutes and 41 seconds watching him talk about emails, I never want to think about them again, which is a shame because I’ve signed up to think about them for a month.

Cooper is a big fan of inbox zero: “I believe in it absolutely. It clears your mind so you can concentrate.” He currently has seven emails in his inbox, all high priority tasks to do over the next couple of days. The rest have been archived in different folders for his different projects.

Gomes is not a fan: “Having a zero inbox is pointless. The idea of dedicating any part of my day to organising my emails when I have a search tool is of zero value.Email is a task, and recognising this is the starting point for getting on top of managing it.” He has let go of the need to conquer his inbox. But what about the profound sense of peace I felt seeing mine empty? “I think it’s completely and utterly artificial. As is the angst you feel about having thousands of emails. You’re always going to be getting more emails than you can deal with. Jump into the data stream, that’s all you can do,” he says.

Gomes’s distaste for folders speaks to my soul – what is the point? Just search! – but I also feel, like Cooper, that my mind is clearer with an empty inbox. It may be an illusion, but it’s an illusion worth having. So I get into the habit of deleting rubbish and responding to and then archiving all other emails. By the end of the week I have five in my inbox, all related to what I’m working on. It is possible I have become a little obsessive.

Week 2: responding immediately

I knew this one was not going to go well for me. So did Cooper, telling me with alarming prescience, “You shouldn’t keep your screen on for that, because it’ll distract you. You’re not going to do any work.”

I keep my emails open as I’m working, and every time a new one pops up, I’m on it like an extremely efficient drug addict, deleting or replying, getting my next hit. Soon I am not doing any work at all, just staring skittishly at my inbox, clicking refresh even though I know it doesn’t do anything. My mother sends me an email about Essential Waitrose lemon yum yums and within seconds I’ve replied and archived. If you follow inbox zero down the rabbit hole, this is where you end up. As Cooper says, “It’s not good. It’s not good at all.”

Week three: checking every two hours

I get out of bed and check my emails around five times within the hour, before remembering I’m only supposed to check every two hours. My next check will be at 11am.

I decide to go out. Two minutes later, I take my phone out to check my emails, catch myself, and delete the app. Two minutes later, I take out my phone to check my emails, remember I have deleted the app, open the browser, type in www.gmail.com, and sign in.

I am envious (and a little disbelieving) of Gomes’s self-control: he tells me he has calculated how long he spends on emails in a day, divided this time by four and scheduled these “sprints” as events in his calendar, and it has made him excruciatingly efficient. “Once you put it in your calendar and do email in exclusion to everything else at those times, you get really focused and productive and it doesn’t bleed into the rest of your day. I look at my inbox four times during the day, and feel much clearer as a result.”

This is impossible for me. On the one occasion I (nearly) manage the full two-hour gap, I almost miss out on a commission for the Guardian – a story that has to be filed within a couple of hours. So I say to myself: “Well, you know what? I am what I am.” I deal my own deck. Maybe you can do this if you work in an office or if you’re a perfect human being, but I don’t and I’m not.

I renegotiate the terms of this week (with myself) and instead resolve never to check emails on my phone. This is because, as Gomes tells me, it is a “really, really stupid” thing to do. He describes a crushingly familiar scenario: you skim through emails on your phone, and half-read one that stresses you out. You can’t read it properly because it’s on a small screen which is “psychologically frustrating”, and you can’t reply because you get distracted – you so half-read it three times, growing more and more anxious, before you finally sit down at your computer, and realise it wasn’t as bad as you thought.

To prevent myself from checking my email on my iPhone’s browser, I move the Safari icon so that it is nine swipes away. It works. I feel simultaneously triumphant and riddled with self-loathing.

Week four: sending an automated message

In the time it took me to come up with an automated message that didn’t make me hate myself, I could have read all 16,516 of my unread emails. I end up with: “Thank you for your email. Unfortunately, due to deadlines, I am only able to respond to urgent messages at the moment.” It makes me sick just to look at it.

We all hate receiving auto-replies. When we write to someone, we don’t care if they are busy, we want a response – now! If they send an automated message like mine, where does that leave us? Are we important enough to make it into the urgent folder? Are they going to delete us or defer us? This is exactly the anxiety I feel when I receive an email and don’t know what to do with it. I think the purpose of these automated messages is to act as a barrier to that anxiety, and reflect it back on to the sender, so they feel it instead.

Susan Lawrence, fellow of the Institute of Psychoanalysis , captures something of what is really going on in our inboxes: “Email feels constantly too close to us, or even like a part of us. An inbox stuffed with things that need dealing with is like persecuting fragments being projected into us; a flood of digital shards which sweep over us.” We unconsciously wish our automated messages would defend us against the onslaught of demands from others, but as Gomes says, “You can’t automate human responses – it just pisses people off.”

My recipe for a delicious inbox

1) Remember this anecdote from Gomes: “About 10 years ago, the head of a famous internet company based in California was slumped over his car in the car park. I asked what the problem was, and he said, ‘I’ve just realised I’ve got 75,000 emails in my inbox and I’m never going to read them. I’ve been labouring under the false assumption that there is some perfect technique.’ When you have more information, requests and emails than you can possibly deal with, it is an insurmountable problem, and you have to find a way of resolving it at an emotional level, which is: let go.”

2) When it all gets a bit much, archive the whole lot.

3) Make it impossible to check emails on your phone.

4) When you check your emails, quickly delete or archive any that are not relevant to what you’re working on right now.

5) If you like folders, use folders, if you don’t, don’t.

6) Relax! Email probably won’t be around for that long anyway. Gomes says, “I suspect email will go in the not-too-distant future. And we’ll be laughing at the fact we ever used it.”

原文链接:https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/feb/08/unanswered-emails-inbox-nirvana-bane-of-life?utm_source=tuicool&utm_medium=referral
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