I consider myself to be an organised sort of person. I manage complex corporate transactions on behalf of clients, ensuring that the team works effectively, all issues are dealt with and all problems resolved to the reasonable satisfaction of everyone involved. I manage a complex home life, ensuring my children get to school on time, with the right kit, having done the right homework, and back home again. I do the food shopping, service my car, pay the bills on time, remember birthdays, call my mother from time to time, sometimes even make it out for a drink with friends. I keep a lot of plates spinning at any one time.
So why can't I keep on top of my email?
Email has become the default mode of communication. You know the drill. You have a great idea that you need to discuss with someone so you send them an email asking for a meeting. They reply with their availability. A chain of emails ensues to find a date and time for the meeting, culminating in you sending them an email with a diary appointment. The day of the meeting you check, by email, that they are still available and they reply to confirm. On the way to the meeting they are delayed and email you to let you know. You reply to say, not to worry. After the meeting you send a thank you for the meeting, followed up by a summary of the discussion. They reply to say thanks.
Conservatively that single meeting has involved at least 11 emails, probably more like 20.
That doesn't sound too bad. I would be pleased to receive only 20 emails. Except when you multiply that by every meeting you have in a week and then add in all the other emails you receive on a daily basis, the newsletters, the IT service messages, the social media updates, the announcements that someone has brought in cake... and even without counting the emails that are important, you are at overload.
The "urgent" email
How have we got into this mess? As lawyers we are rewarded for our ability to interpret and use the written word. Does this mean we use email as our default mode of communication more than other professions? I suspect not.
It feels to me that there has been a cultural shift over the last 5 to 10 years in relation to what we use email for. Whereas 10 years ago if you wanted something actioned urgently, you picked up the telephone and kept calling until you spoke to the relevant person. Now urgent requests are sent by email and followed up with a second email if no response is received. If I didn't see the first email, I'm equally unlikely to see the second one. It's not that I'm deliberately ignoring you; I might be in a meeting, or on the telephone, or reading something or I just might not have realised that your email was the most urgent email out of the 15 new emails in my inbox that hour.
The result is that the electronic mail system, developed to deliver messages fast, is no longer useful for anything urgent.
The lure of email
If email no longer works where time is of the essence, why is it being preferred over other methods of communication?
I think there are two major reasons here. As a member of Generation X, I had an analogue childhood and a digital adulthood. I am used to speaking on the telephone because, when I was growing up, that was all that was available. Whereas for millenials growing up in the age of email and instant messaging, using the telephone is a slightly alien concept.
The other reason is that there is an increased desire to document things. This may be as a result of governance, or accountability, or just to help us process the vast quantity of data we deal with every day. Essentially email is documentation, not communication.
Is more technology the answer?
So what is the solution for my out of control inbox ? Much of the discourse on this topic focuses on how to manage email in a smarter way. Use your commute and other pockets of down-time to clear your inbox, unsubscribe from automated emails you don't read, use folders and flags to stay on top of the important messages. However everybody I know already uses these tricks. I want to decrease the number of emails I receive, not manage them better. I need something more.
Email free days are unrealistic. Perhaps more technology is the answer. Most companies now have instant messaging and many are starting to use collaboration tools such as Slack, which can be a fantastic way to share work progress in a team.
I was interested to see that Google has launched Smart Compose, an AI tool to answer emails for you. Although, as the New York Times says, this type of AI will probably increase email traffic, not reduce it.
However I'm thinking of trying something more radical.
Talking to people. In person.
So the next time you think about sending me an email, don't. Pick up the phone, drop by my desk. I'll do the same to you. We might have a face to face conversation, IRL. We might even like it.
We can be sure of only one thing that will result from automating email: It will create more of it.