The Infinity: Email Management and Engagement

It’s a cold and rainy Sunday morning in November. I’m drinking some delicious dark coffee from Balzac’s.

My wife and I are each working on different things and taking advantage of the relative morning quiet. I’m at the kitchen table working off my laptop, listening to music on my headphones, and working on overview material: looking at the emails I have to respond to. I criticize myself for procrastinating, which is in itself an extra layer of procrastinating.

Email is the engine of misery

I take a look at my work email inbox. It is not too bad for a professor. I keep it organized and the inbox contains one those things that need a reply. But there at 59 messages in there that I need to reply to;  four of these have been awaiting a reply since September. Even while I write this, I’m feeling a real sense of anxiety and conflict. On the one hand, I greatly desire to spend hours slogging though the entire list and trying to deal with backlog. I’d love to look at INBOX = 0. I think that would make me feel great (which is a strange belief to have…I have never had INBOX = 0, so how do I know it would make me feel great?) Even an hour could make a good dent and dispense with at least 2/3 of the messages.

But at the same time, I want to ignore all of it. To delete all the email. I think about Donald Knuth’s quote about email. Knuth is a computer scientist at Stanford, who developed, among other things, the “TeX” system of typesetting. He has an entry on his website about email and indicted that he does not have an address.

“Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.”

This quote, and the idea here, has been one of the things that I really aspire to. It’s one of my favourite quotes and a guiding principle…but I can’t make the leap. Like Knuth, I also write books, articles, and I try to get to the bottom of things. But it seems like I never scratch the surface because I’m always responding to email, sending email, Tweeting and engaging on social media. Deeper analysis never happens because I’m preoccupied with this surface. I feel trapped by this.

And yet, I cannot ignore the surface level. Engagement with email is part of my job. Others depend my responding. For example, I have a now retried departmental colleague who just never responded to email, and this was very frustrating to deal with. I suspect (I know) that others picked up the slack when he failed to be responsive. I have a current colleague who is much the same. So I don’t endorse blowing off some aspects of one’s job, knowing that others will pick these pieces up. I don’t want to shirk my administrative and teaching responsibilities, even if it means I sacrifice the ability to have dedicated research and writing time.

Give and Take

In the end, I am trapped in a cage that I spend hours each day making stronger. Trapped in a pit that I work ever longer hours to make deeper. The incoming email will not stop, but one could probably slow it down by not sending any email out, by providing FAQs on my syllabus about when to email, by delegating email to TAs.

The real question is, if I give less time to email, will it take less of my time away? If so, will I use that time wisely? Or will I turn to another form of distraction. Is email the problem? Or am I the problem?

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