When I arrived back at my desk yesterday after a week off, my first task was to wade through the approximately 140 emails that had arrived in my absence. (And that was in a light week, after the end of the teaching term and when many colleagues were on holiday.) Although daunting at first, I soon saw that only about half a dozen actually required any action. Most were deleted quickly; several just involved me being included in a thread that I didn’t really need to be included in. Some were spam, including generic invitations, for example, to conferences on natural computation or the NHS – hardly areas relevant to my research agenda! A few needed me to take note of something, and a few others needed a reply.
What I learnt from this experience was something I already knew really: most emails can be ignored completely, and all others can wait.
Of course, some emails are very welcome. It always brightens my day to receive a message from a colleague in the field, or news of an exciting symposium, for example. But let’s face it, mostly emails get in the way of real work. Their constant interruptions throughout the day can easily destroy a train of thought, and draw you off onto tasks that are not really urgent, but that are somehow more tangible than that article you want to be writing. Having good email discipline, like being able to resist random internet roaming, is crucial to efficient working. In particular, being offline seems to me at least to be essential in order to do the real thinking, not to mention reading and writing, that is required of research.
There are various strategies out there for dealing with this problem, including software that can disable certain online activities for periods of time. Since I sometimes need the internet for my research, and don’t really have a problem with random internet temptations (I’ve never been very interested in cat videos and am not on Facebook or anything similar), for me it is the email that needs putting in its place. I still need to engage with it regularly, in part because I pride myself on being an efficient colleague and helpful teacher, and in part because of the enjoyment or important information it often brings. However, what I need are periods where it is not there, that little red number telling me mail has arrived, or the flashing notification that has just crossed my screen…. (Ah yes, another email telling me something I don’t need to know, identical to one I received five minutes ago!)
So the emails are getting switched off for several hours at a time. I will see how I get on with three email sessions per day, at the beginning, middle and end of the working day, each of no more than twenty minutes. In between I will be finishing my book…. starting right now!
If any of you readers have any other strategies for managing the distraction of emails and other online temptations I’d love to hear them.