The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

I Hate E-mail

I hate how I approach e-mail.

It’s not the mountain that stops you.

It’s the pebble in your shoe.

—Mountain climber saying

I hate e-mail. And now that I have your attention, I should say more exactly that I hate how I approach e-mail. The habits I have developed in responding to e-mail messages, which once upon a time made sense when I received a mere handful of messages per day, are now hugely punishing given that I receive several hundred messages per day. I spend more time with e-mail than with anything else in my life, professional or personal, other than sleeping. And my sleep is increasingly disrupted by my rumination about the hundreds of unanswered messages in my inbox!

When I first started to use e-mail, I thought it was wonderful. I could send messages simultaneously to a large number of folks about a meeting time and place. I could check in with loved ones when I was in a time zone that made phone calls unwieldy or inappropriate. I could ask simple questions or make simple requests of friends and colleagues without writing letters.

But things changed. What I thought was so wonderful about e-mail was what it allowed me to do. But e-mail also allowed other people to do things, and all too often, I am on the receiving end of what they are trying to do. I suppose really important people have someone else to handle their e-mail. I’m not such a person. I’m important enough that people ask me to do things, but not important enough that I can delegate or relegate the hundreds of requests I get every day. Can you send me this? Can you read the attached paper (or book!) and comment on it? Can you advise me about whatever?

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“Pardon the multiple postings.” Excuse me, but I do not pardon these! I am opposed to the death penalty, but I would probably make an exception in this case. Even e-mail messages that require no response still need to be read. Life is short, and I do not want the epitaph on my tombstone to say “He read all of his e-mail.”

Most of the e-mail messages I receive are from people I do not know, and they are contacting me in my professional role. Yes … yes … yes … I could just ignore them. But I am still an old school kind of guy, and I think it impolite to ignore requests, even if I do not know the people making them and even if the requests are bizarre.

Early in my career, I learned that responding quickly to any and all requests paid dividends. As Woody Allen said, 80% of success is showing up, and in my case, showing up meant responding to requests. The problem is that e-mail has allowed the requests to escalate beyond my capacity to honor them. The result is that e-mail is now killing me.

One of the few self-help books I have read cover-to-cover promised advice about “managing” e-mail. An ostensibly useful bit of advice was dubbed the three-minute rule. If you can answer an e-mail in three minutes, always do so upon reading it the first time, because if you leave it for later, it will still take three minutes plus whatever extra time it takes to re-read it and re-understand what is needed.

The problem with following the three-minute rule is that it encourages the e-mail sender to send yet another message, usually immediately. Quickly removing the pebble in your shoe that an e-mail request represents only results in more pebbles.

As my colleague Marty Seligman has said, to raise roses you have to pull weeds. But pulling e-mail weeds leads to more of them. The roses are postponed indefinitely.

This blog is supposed to be about the good life, so why I am whining about e-mail? Simply because e-mail can undercut the good life. It can be a hassle and in my case an incredible one.

I doubt I am alone in my discomfort with e-mail. Is there a solution?

Perhaps a 21st century rendering of the Golden Rule would be useful: Don’t e-mail others messages you wouldn’t want to receive yourself.

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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