On Reading Email (Once a Week)
consensus, and so on? Well, there is an answer. We sat down to write letters. And having finished them, we had to go out and put them in a physical mailbox, or find a fax machine somewhere, in cases of great hurry. Or we made a phone call, in spite of the costs, and it all took a lot of time. Didn’t we have anything else to do than wasting hours and hours on such laborious and time-consuming procedures? Well, there’s an answer to that too. We could find the time, for a very simple reason. We did not need to spend hours every day reading email and responding to it.
the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. [...]
Reading Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle (yes, that's a hyperlink! Please stay with me anyway) made me aware of another dimension of email: that of guilt and social pressure. It is already bad enough that my concentration gets shattered whenever a new visitor walks into my study and issues a beep to interrupt what I’m doing. And it is even worse that when nobody walks in for five minutes, my dopamine compels me to get up and walk to my door to check whether anyone is coming yet, and that when I’m back at my desk, I am distracted because my brain keeps wondering why nobody is there to disturb me.
! When will the next beep come?
! Why haven't I heard it yet?
! Have they forgotten me?
But the process does not stop there. When new visitors come in, as they invariably do, they expect me to answer quasi-immediately and are likely to take offense if I don’t.
! I have received the email, haven’t I?
! I have the technical means to respond, don’t I?
! So then why the f@#$%^&! do I not respond? What is it that’s keeping me?
And even this can get worse. Similar to what happens in the dopamine loop (first you get interrupted by others, but eventually you don’t need them anymore: you’ve started doing it all by yourself), even if nobody is blaming me for being slow with my answers, I end up feeling guilty all by myself.
! I don't want them to think I’m impolite and egoistic.
! They might think I’m some arrogant ass (those professors, you know...) who finds his own stuff so important that he just can't be bothered to take an interest in others and respond to their needs.
! Too busy? What nonsense! They get as many emails as I do. No cause for me to complain, as if I’m in some special category. If they can answer their emails, so can I.