You’ve got mail: 172 messages, 48 unread

This screen is from the Pine e-mail client, a simple text-based email interface that I used in the mid-1990s, also known as the Internet’s ye olden days.

Travel with me now to an era of scarcity, when email was special. When I went to a special computer lab (no laptop) to use special text-language (no mouse) to log into a screen like this, where I’d linger over my two messages from that week, and tap out a reply with two fingers.

Okay, then: forget the tech-nostalgia trip, and remember when you were a kid, and you got your first letter in the mail. Compare that to the statements and admail you got last week, and you’ll see my point.

Email isn’t so special when you get 48 messages in a day, each asking you for something and CCing you on long discussions. (I’m as guilty, there, as the next faculty.) For too many people, email is our default to-do list that other people can add items to. No wonder it’s lost its charm.

I want my productive time back — not my busy time, not my time satisfying other people’s priorities at the expense of my own. I respect their priorities, but not as much as I value my own.

So I’m adopting the Email Charter, a grandly-titled list of 10 simple rules. Read the original, or my reduced manifesto:

  1. Celebrate clarity. Write fewer, shorter messages. Number your questions.
  2. Get straight to the point. Does the reader need to send you some information? answer a direct question? or just be aware of something? Sayeth the charter: “Ending a note with ‘No need to respond’…is a wonderful act of generosity.”
  3. Be mindful of your time on email. Check your inbox just twice a day: early in the morning to clear the real emergencies, and mid-afternoon to deal with things that deserve a longer reply. Set a timer for 30 minutes, and stop when it stops. Then go back to your own projects.
  4. Turn off all notifications. Everywhere. I’ve moved my mail app to the fourth screen of my iPhone, so I really have to want to read my messages in the checkout line.
  5. Reply at your convenience, not the sender’s. This is the hardest rule to uphold, because most people assume that after 48 hours their email was ignored. “Yes, I got your e-mail,” you’ll say, “and I’ll reply when I can, after due consideration and/or when I’m done what I started.”

If I can practice these five habits, and reset other people’s expectations of my time, 2015 will be more productive than busy. Help cure me of this nostalgia, won’t you?

One Reply to “You’ve got mail: 172 messages, 48 unread”

  1. I remember Pine! I remember being excited at receiving an email! Oh the days. Love your charter, Michael. But I can’t imagine being able to whittle down email time to an hour a day….

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