When I first began to use email in earnest, while a student at MIT in the early 1990s, writing and reading emails had much the same feeling as writing and reading handwritten letters. By far the easiest way to write an email was to go to one of a small number of computer clusters on campus and log in to a computer terminal. The people I sent email messages to were few and far between, and they also had relatively infrequent access to an email-enabled computer. So if you sent an email to someone, you expected that they might not read it and respond for at least a few days, if not much longer. All of this encouraged the writing of messages that were relatively long and that provided information that could be quite out of date, much like a handwritten letter.
No one was surprised, much less offended, if you did not respond to their email messages within minutes. If anything, I remember being very surprised whenever someone would respond to an email I had sent to them during the same email-checking session, since this reflected a rare coincidence in which we both happened to be checking our email inboxes at the same time.
In other words, email was slow. And the slowness felt good. I savored the ability to take my time to compose a message, review it, edit it, and send it in its fully-polished form. When I received an email message, I felt only giddy excitement and not a bit of anxiety.
Then, as more and more people obtained access to email, and as high-speed, always-on Internet connections on mobile devices became ubiquitous, people increasingly expected immediate responses to email messages. Email became fast.
Now it is rare that I receive an email message without at least some dread, not because of the message’s content, but because of the felt need to respond, and to do so quickly.
There was a time when people associated different degrees of urgency with different types of messages. For a while, sending someone a text message signaled that you wanted an immediate response, while sending an email message meant that the response could wait. It was a great example of McLuhan’s maxim that “the medium is the message.”
There are many things we could do to attempt to slow down the pace of email (and other types of messaging) again, and today I’ll mention just one: set your incoming email to download at most once every 30 minutes. A related suggestion is never to manually download email; rely on the scheduled automatic download to retrieve your email for you.
This is not a new suggestion. Many people recommend it as a way to stop being constantly distracted by incoming email.
My reason for suggesting it is a bit different–to delay the responses that people receive to the emails that they send to you. Even if they then respond to your response immediately, there will be a delay in the response that you then send back to them. The net result is a slowdown in the pace of email communication, at least within your immediate circle.
If enough people were to adopt this strategy, there could be a gradual but significant slowdown in the pace of email communications, just as originally there was an increase.
Of course this one step will not solve all problems resulting from the speed of communication. As just one example, people will still need ways to communicate more quickly when necessary. But such ways already exist, such as various forms of instant messaging, picking up the phone, or walking down the hallway and knocking on the door. Adopted mindfully, such a tiered approach to communications could be both more productive and less stressful.
I suspect that many people who have already abandoned email in favor of instant messaging or platforms such as Slack will wonder why I am even mentioning a technology as outdated as email. One reason is that many people still rely on it as a significant, if not the primary, form of electronic communication. Another is that turning to any single form of messaging, regardless of its benefits over email, results in the same problem of failing to distinguish messages having different degrees of urgency from each other. When all messages you receive arrive via the same medium, such messages tend to appear to have the same urgency.
Email has certain inherent features–such as the need to specify recipients and a subject line–which make it well-suited for messages that are more urgent than handwritten letters but less urgent than instant messages. There’s a place for this kind of message, such as to provide a thoughtful summary of a meeting to colleagues that doesn’t warrant a full memo or catching up with a friend who you haven’t seen in a week or two. If we could reset our expectations about how quickly we need to respond to email, this old but venerable medium could once again find a useful place in the constellation of messaging media while making it a less stressful and anxiety-producing way to communicate with each other.