I’m at a breaking point, and I suspect I’m not the only one. Working from home (WFH, or perhaps it’s better to abbreviate as WTF) is only making matters worse. I’m talking about the never-ending flow of e-mails and the stranglehold they have over our lives. This beast must be destroyed. But how?
As a Head of Department and Deputy Dean of Research & Innovation, I am absolutely inundated with e-mails. When I was an early career researcher, I used to just answer them as they arrived. Back then, I could stop what I was doing, respond, and return to my work. Now, that’s simply not possible. I have to block out an hour or two per day just to keep on top of them—and as I respond to each one, more arrive, meaning that I’m never finished responding. I imagine it must be like working for the postal service: no matter how many letters I sort and deliver, mountains of mail arrive each day.
I feel as though I’ve become Sisyphus, a tragic character from Greek mythology. Each day he rolled a heavy bolder to the top of a hill, only for it to roll back down so he could push it up again and again, for eternity. Such a life borders on the absurd, and yet here I am, living it day in and day out.
“Each day he rolled a heavy bolder to the top of a hill, only for it to roll back down so he could push it up again and again, for eternity. Such a life borders on the absurd, and yet here I am, living it day in and day out.”
E-mails themselves are often absurd. Although the spam filter at my university catches many of them, I still receive (admittedly quite flattering) messages from predatory journals asking me to submit to their special issue on … cervical cancer (never mind that I’m a Professor of Human Resource Management!). “Dear Very Esteemed Professor, I was very impressed with your most recent article on employee selection systems and therefore invite you to submit to our upcoming special issue on diagnostic tools for detecting cervical cancer in women aged 40 to 49.”
I am often CCed “FYI” on many e-mails, and although faculty often delete these, a Head of Department has to read through them carefully just in case and file them in complicated folders whose themes often overlap and are rarely (if ever) revisited.
Then there are the dreaded “reply all” e-mails in which people think that they’re having a private conversation, but instead are writing the whole department (or, in the most egregious cases, the whole university!). These can get quite salacious.
What is to be done about this menace to society? How can we defeat this hydra? Is it even possible?
I’m loath to suggest another electronic solution. I find that “chat” software can be just as oppressive as e-mail, if not more so. On the other hand, I find Trello boards to be generally more helpful because at least they keep the conversation focused on work-related problems and solutions.
But what if—and just hear me out on this one—what if we just picked up the damn phone? Would this mean that we’d be answering calls all day? I think not. The social effort involved in making a phone call would help us all separate the wheat from the chaff in our communications. In my experience, 80% of what is written in an e-mail is superfluous to its core message.
Let us slay this dragon together. Very little would give me more pleasure than to smite a devastating death blow to this Devil’s snare.
Professor Andrew R. Timming
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