Isn’t it currently heaven, e-mail-wise? The torrent has slowed to a trickle – round here, at least, and looks set to stay that way till the tsunami of e-communications flood in, come September.
No question: e-mail is one of the most stressful aspects of work in 2015. And unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of murmuring about ‘digital detoxing’ – going off-line, or even deleting the entire contents of our inboxes. Personally (and I am not doing this to sound grand or important), I get over 300 e-mails a day. I no longer refer to it as ‘e-mail’, but the ‘e-swamp’, which sucks in important stuff alongside all the irrelevancies, such as the endless ‘ccs’ and ‘bccs’. I honestly don’t know how we’re all meant to cope with it – and apart from anything else, it’s rubbish for concentration: A 2011 study by Dr. Tom Jackson at the University of Loughborough established that it takes an average of 64 seconds to recover your thoughts after reading an e-mail. (I’d say longer than that, personally.)
I did once delete the entire contents of my own inbox, as it happened. In truth, this wasn’t digital pioneering on my part: it was actually due to the sheer ineptitude of a locum techie who managed to wipe every single e-mail I’d ever received. After sobbing a bit at the loss of e-mails from a couple of dead friends, and a bit of rolling around on the carpet moaning, it was actually amazingly liberating. Was there anything, actually, that couldn’t be replicated or re-sent, if required? Very, very little, as it turned out. (Happily, he hadn’t wiped my contacts, so at least I was able to contact people.) And then it started building up, to the point where I’m sitting here with 73,376 e-mails (oh, here come two more!!!). And I feel very much like one writer for Fast Company, one of my favourite business mags, who commented: ‘on some days I feel like my inbox is this dark cloud hovering over my life, disallowing any peace from settling in. It is a never-ending, constantly growing, infinite mound of mounting minutiae to process and complete.’ And with only one life to live (unless your religious beliefs suggest otherwise), do any of us really need that…?
There are really no blueprints for this, though. These are uncharted waters. Something’s clearly got to give, or it’s going to be us – and of course, this concern about tech taking over our lives is behind Arianna Huffington’s ‘Third Metric’ push, and her excellent book Thrive. The one thing I will say is that having read Thrive and several times sworn I wouldn’t be at my desk after nine, never mind Tweet from under the covers at 11.42 pm, I’ve slipped back into my old bad habits. I know keep what is becoming a well-thumbed copy by the bed, as a constant reminder not to re-offend. Because when it comes to gravitational pull, Planet Earth has nothing on an iPhone.
I once had a conversation with a cousin in Australia, who told me she likes nothing better than to open a cupboard and see it empty. She works to keep them that way, because it makes her feel calm. As a serial re-clutterer, I thought she was nuts at the time – but then I remembered: that’s just how I felt when that techie accidentally cleared my postbox. And it was a g-o-o-d feeling. So I just took a baby step: deleting everything that was older than three months, as a start.
If you’re going to Do The Deed, clear your box and empty your e-trash, there’s probably one key step: to back up first. It’s cheating, kind of – you could always reinstall. But there may, just may be things in there that you possibly, maybe might seriously need sometime (important attachments), etc. The second option is just to delete everything that’s more than a month old. There’s a slim chance that anything older than that might be a VIP e-mail, but mostly, it’s the current stuff we need. And here’s what else I think works…
Never do e-mail on holiday. Remember life before e-mail? Did the office fall apart? Uh-uh. For a long time now I’ve succeeded in not looking at a single e-mail while I’m on vacation, and instead have a glorious half-day deleting thousands of them when I get back. If your livelihood is at risk, let colleagues know you’ll be checking e-mails at a particular time – for instance, midday – and will be able to respond to any truly urgent ones then. But don’t try and ‘stay on top of’ your e-mail while you’re on holiday – because quite simply, it is not a holiday. (And equally simply, there is no such thing as ‘staying on top of your e-mail’. Full stop. It’s a losing battle.)
Don’t do e-mails first thing. Instead, meditate, shower, walk, have breakfast, go through your morning routine – and then get to e-mail. Trust me: the world will not come to an end. (And when I say ‘e-mail’, this equally applies to social media, NB.)
Remember: you’re the boss of your own weekend. Don’t buy into the idea that if someone sends you a work e-mail over the weekend, you have to respond till Monday. I send e-mails on Sunday, when I always work (best day for getting things done and it means I don’t feel guilty for occasionally getting my nails or hair done between Monday to Friday) – but I make it known I absolutely don’t expect (or even want) a response.
Go on a social media diet. As I say, this isn’t just about e-mail; it’s about the times you check your phone during the day. Imagine you’re on a Facebook/Twitter/Instagram ‘diet’, and cut down on the number of times you check in to social media. Turn off ‘notifications’.
Go ‘off-grid’. Would the world end if you spent a day or two without any electronic devices? I once spent a weekend at The Scarlet Hotel in Cornwall – blissful spot, can thoroughly recommend it – and was horrified at first that the WiFi didn’t work, but once I’d got over the panic I ultimately experienced a glorious sense of freedom (and read a couple of books by the end, as a result!) I spent the last British total eclipse in Cornwall, too – on the south coast in St. Mawes – and found it hilarious (but mostly very sad) that off-duty City chaps were risking death hanging over the terrace at The Tresanton trying to get a signal on their Blackberries.
So all that remains to be said is: I really hope you’re not reading this on your phone, on holiday…!