This morning I’m on my way to work and listening to the book Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths. Sitting at a stoplight I hear something that I’m pretty certain Brian Christian was sharing specifically for me.
Brian cited research done by Steve Whittaker at UC Santa Cruz back in 1996 regarding email overload. When asked “Is sorting email a waste of time?” the answer was an emphatic yes.
Really? I’ve spent an immeasurable amount of time in my life categorizing and sorting my work email and personal email into digital files and folders. It’s all there organized and ready to find at a moments notice. Folders are set up by topic, sender, or the class they’re related to. Even personal notes and correspondence are kept in their perfect place.
Want to know what my wife wanted me to pick up at the store back on October 9th, 2017? I’ve got that for you in the “Michelle” folder – two red peppers, green onions, Tostitos, and some Mexican Style Cheese, preferably the Sargento kind.
The eTickets and QR Code for the Phillies game we saw while in Philadelphia for ISTE back in 2015? I’ve got them too. And you never now when you’re going to need those again, right? Which is, probably, never.
Why have I spent so much time putting electronic mail messages into a paper style file folder format? The reality is that the one time I actually do need to find an old archived email I’ll just use the search tool in my Apple Mail.
Could it be that this sense of order, this going through the motions of reading and filing that gives me a sense of control with a communication format that often feels out of control? Or is this a complete waste of time?
The issue with time is that it is a commodity. Just like money, we spend it and save it and try to use it as sparingly as possible when at all possible. But, unlike money, it’s finite. We can’t actually “save time” like we “save money”. There’s no way to cash it in later. Even if I were to “save” hours of time at work every week by not sorting my email there’s no way to bank it. There’s no way to open the fictitious Time Saving App on my phone while laying on my death bed and say “let’s use that 12 hours I saved not sorting my email and go for long walk with my grandkids before I croak.”
Time is the commodity used to measure both order and chaos. If I saved the time sorting email now would I just waste it in the future sorting through a disorganized email inbox looking for some all important email or document? The question now becomes is an unsorted inbox really chaos?
No. Email inboxes are digital and easily searched. This is why we have technology, a tool that makes our life easier. So here’s my restoration resolution for today to make life easier. I will no longer sort or file my email. I’m going to read it. Delete it if it’s not important. Leave it if it is. And in the rare chance that I do need something in the future and can’t find it, I’ll go for a walk.
In conclusion, if you like this blog post or have any questions, please don’t email me about it.
For an opposing viewpoint and more information about using email efficiently check out “A Super-Efficient Email Process” by Peter Bregman from the Harvard Business Review.