Tuesday, March 25, 2008

My Slow Email Movement

I've never been a slow-anything person, other than riding slowly up mountains, and that's only because of the weakness of flesh, not any unwillingness of spirit. So it's not often that I embrace a Slow movement.

But on my Web page, I currently say

Every month I get over 10,000 messages. Of these, just over 8000 messages are spam. In this same time I send over 1000 messages. I am, in short, a full time email employee who gets to do a little teaching and research on the side. You know, as recreation.

If any of the deans or assistant deans or vice-deans or sub-deans or deans-in-waiting or deans-in-law at Brown are reading this: I'm kidding! Everyone else: I'm not!

For a day or two, I played with Google Mail on my mobile phone. Then, one day, I was lost during a bike ride, so I pulled out my mobile to find my whereabouts on Google Maps...and found myself checking my email. Soon after the apps ceased to work on my T-Mobile phone, and I was happy to not investigate why.

For the past year or so, I have rarely been checking my email when I travel. That is, I check it once every two to three days. And here's something amazing. If I wait a day, it takes me about an hour to restore my mailbox. If I wait two days, it takes me about an hour-and-a-half. If I wait three days, it still takes me about an hour-and-a-half.

These numbers are slightly misleading. They mask critical tasks that require real attention to detail and will take much longer than a minute to discharge. But those tasks are relatively few: I can be gone for two weeks and find only two or three such tasks lying in wait when I return. Which suggests I'm significantly promoting in importance things I do encounter daily.

There are other knock-on effects. You've played email ping-pong, right? Everyone treats their mailbox as a task-manager, so you get a task, you reply or forward to put the monkey on someone else's back, they do the same to put it back on yours, and suddenly you've lost an hour of the day (because studies haved, shown that these context-switches are extremely expensive, though as computer scientists, we should have known that). And, since you and your correspondent are both on-line, your reply begets their reply, and so forth. Congestion-control through exponential-backoff, anyone? (This is why I enjoy clearing out backlog during times when lots of people are on vacation: significantly fewer replies.)

The backoff strategy shows where our email user interfaces have gotten it wrong. They show us when we received email, but who cares; they should instead tell us when we should be replying to email. And that “when” should be a combination of when we need to (based on message content) and when it would be prudent to (based on correspondent habits).

So I'm making a conscious decision. I'm going to go Slow on E-Mail. I'm going to treat it as an addiction, like drinking too much coffee. There doesn't seem to be a simple, prescriptive or descriptive classification of addiction treatment akin to the seven stages of grief; much of the on-line material about treating addiction is rather disturbing and possibly borderline dangerous (and, mark me, there's a megachurch out there somewhere that is going to make a killing off faith-based treatments for email). So I'll have to figure this one out on my own.

Do feel free to drop me a note with your thoughts.

Just don't expect me to respond.


Sophia Drossopoulou said...

Your analysis absolutely makes sense.

> I'm going to go Slow on E-Mail
I am sure you are more productive this way.

And also, that explains a change of behavioural pattern compared with a couple of months ago.



Unknown said...

I strongly agree - I wish there was a way to delay every message in my inbox by an hour. I only want to see messages that have aged for at least an hour.
This would break the rapid-response priority-elevation nature of email on my day.

Anybody know how to do that?

Michael Ernst said...

> I wish there was a way to delay
> every message in my inbox by an hour.
> Anybody know how to do that?