Email Makes Us Trade Productivity For Accessiblity

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One of the world's foremost computer scientists, Donald Knuth, gave up on email back in 1990 - before many of us had ever sent a message. By then, he'd been. using email for 15 years which he says was quite enough for one lifetime. Instead, he now provides people with a mailing address. Why would he do this? It's about the long-term value of uninterrupted concentration over the short-term convenience of accessibility. What can we learn from Knuth and his approach to email?

Most of rely on email to do our jobs. The ability to send a message to someone anywhere in the world instantly and receive a response quickly has revolutionised business in almost the same way as the wheel changed transport. But the compulsion to consistently be on the lookout for new messages while working on other tasks, something a colleague of mine once called "continual partial attention", means we often struggle to focus on tasks that require deeper thinking.

Knuth's views on email, which are covered in an excellent article in The Chronicle Review basically amount to his need to be able to focus deeply on a single subject rather that spread himself out across multiple streams of thought.

In my job, I receive about 200 messages over email each day plus a bunch of others over various messaging platforms and the phone. And I know I'm not alone in feeling that communication is a little too easy these days. When people had to write a letter and post it, the cost of communication was higher and made us more discerning. Now, we can impulsively send a message distracting ourselves from a task and, potentially, the receiver.

Incidentally, Knuth, who provides a postal address on the link to his email on his offical bio, has his secretary process his snail mail quarterly. And if you try to circumvent that by sending a fax then you can wait six months!

Knuth says:

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don't have time for such study.

That task, by the way, is trying to finish The Art of Computer Programming, a work he began in 1962 and that will need many years to complete.

Over the last few months, I've taken to only checking my email twice a day - mid morning and late in the afternoon. Anything that is really urgent should be a phonemail or, preferably a text message as I don't answer my online unless I can identify the incoming number. In my experience, the vast majority of email messages I receive don't require immediate action.

I'm not a subscriber to the "zero inbox" philosophy. I prefer "managed inbox". I have a few smart folders (Apple's way of doing saved searches) that give me a list of All Unread Messages, Today's Unread Messages and Yesterday's Unread Messages. For special projects, I create similar Smart Folders that gather messages from the client's domain.

I don't care how many messages are in any particular folder as long as I keep on top of what's important. I've also turned off all email-related notifications except for messages that come from a small group of VIPs. That system is simple and lets me stay focussed on my work.

What about you? What are you email management tips?


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