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Email means different things to different people. Some wise souls use it almost exclusively at their workplace, and view email as a tool for tasks, to be dealt with efficiently and dispassionately. But many, and probably most, now view their email as an extension of themselves. In this sense it's more like a portal to quench curiosity, or a stage where we play our part, or worse, it's a ticking bomb of words that may or may not explode at any minute. As such, email has become the vortex of choice for our unquiet minds.

While I aspire to be more like an email technocrat, and manage it for short periods, I am part of the generation that uses email, despite its various limitations, as the default means of communicating. And I have noticed, largely through the use of email on smartphones, that I am gradually being sucked into the vortex.


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To illustrate, yesterday evening I reached home about 6.30, connected with family, had dinner, took my son out for a brief walk and came back home ready to put him to bed. I was a little tired, but otherwise present, relaxed, at ease. And then I made the mistake of just quickly checking my smartphone for new work emails.

There were a few that made no psychic impact, but one that read like an implicit rebuke to a previous email I had sent, and it lingered uncomfortably in my psyche for the next two hours until I managed to sleep. I did lots of other things in that time, but the impact of the email was still there, a centrifugal force pulling my attention away from the thoughts and feelings of the people around me, and diluting the quality of experience in the here and now.

Many people view email as a portal to quench restless curiosity, or as an identity update, or as a verbal bomb that might explode at any minute, and as such it becomes the default vortex for our unquiet minds.

The cost of convenience

Of course, there is the enormous convenience of being able to easily work from home and out of office hours and it helps to have work email accessible on your phone. Still, that expectation and convenience creates habitual patterns of behaviour that are by no means entirely benign.

The collapse of boundaries between work and home is not always a bad thing, but the ubiquity of smart phones means that there is always an imminent threat of such a collapse happening at the wrong moment. Perhaps some people can absorb news about a funding application, troubling information about a colleague or a reminder of an imminent deadline and return to the mood and attentiveness they had before checking, but I haven't met them yet, and suspect they are few and far between.

Just checking?

Perhaps the core issue is the default verb we use for email. This whole idea of 'checking' email feels wrong to me. Why this verb- to check? It suggests a kind of vigilance and surveillance that a responsible person ought to undertake, like "I'm just going to check I have my passport" or "I'm just going to check I locked the front door." If we shifted this mindset of 'checking', the presence of email on our smartphones may not be such a threat to our presence and peace of mind. If email was instead something one had 'to do' or 'to write' or 'to read', the perceived urgency 'to check' would not be there and the restless habitual tendencies that underpin it might thereby be weakened.

This whole idea of 'checking' email feels wrong to me. Why this verb- to check?

To be clear, I think this challenge of handling emails is significantly complicated by smartphones, not least because 78% of people check email on their smartphones. When you sit at your desk you can (and really should) get better at managing your mails, and Oliver Burkeman, for instance, is excellent on how to achieve what he calls 'inbox nirvana'. However, when your phone is synchronised with your work email, as most now are, this kind of management is much harder. You read your emails on the phone while waiting in queues, while travelling, and more generally when you are not strictly 'working', so you are much more likely just to scan them and leave them in your inbox rather than act on them with the requisite clarity of purpose.

So what to do? The crux of behaviour change is often distilled as the challenge of making good things easier to do and bad things harder to do. In this case, I don't want to lose the option of using/reading/writing/enjoying my work email on my phone when I actively choose to, but I do want to be saved from my my tendency just to 'check' for the wrong reasons. Is there software or an app that might help here? Otherwise we are back to wrestling with the brute binary of the on/off button, and we all know who tends to win that one.


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