Notes on mindful email use

Recently, Basecamp released an email service, called Hey, many of whose features essentially embody a technological approach to solving one of the biggest problems with email: its users. GMail is versatile, but most people seem to use it in annoying ways (based on the email traffic in my professional inbox). I’ve been using only my email for work for five years or so now, and even before used it over phone to the extent possible. I hate speaking on the phone with people who aren’t at least close friends or family.

However, this seems to be a ridiculous proposition in journalism circles: I’m not sure of the history here but if you have a phone and you’re starting off as a journalist, you’re expected to be reachable – by every Tom, Dick and Harry – by phone. People will call you repeatedly even if you’re not picking, they’ll WhatsApp you next; sometimes, they’ll send you an email and then call you to let you know they’ve emailed you. Sometimes they’ll follow up both with a WhatsApp message saying, “Please don’t forget.” (I’m not a forgetful person – but there’s a first time for everything).

Worst of all, they will share your number with others without asking you; most of them won’t even check whom they’re sharing your number with. They were asked, so they will answer.

Another group that will react to your insistence on using email as if it was a joke is PR people. In 2016, I did a story about TeamIndus with help from their PR team, and to this day, I haven’t been able to get my phone number out of some database PR people share among themselves of numbers of journalists they know. No amount of promises to “do the needful” seems to have the desirable outcome.

At the same time, most of those who do use email use it in ways that suggest they think it’s the opposite of a phone call. Here are some tips (read: desperate pleas) to use email sensibly, especially if the recipient receives scores of emails a day.

  1. “Phone calls cost money, emails are free.” – Emails cost more than money; they cost peace of mind. You shouldn’t hit the ‘compose’ button just because it’s there. Ask yourself if you really need to send the email you’re thinking about. If the answer is ‘yes’, ask yourself if you really need to send a whole new email or if you could tack your message onto an existing email thread. Following three threads with inputs for the same story exacerbates the cognitive demand, and leads to inbox hell.
  2. Emails are not real-time, and I’m in a hurry.” – This is exactly why email is awesome: so you don’t run around making decisions for the both of us that help only you. I’m not in a hurry to respond because I’ve got my own priorities. If I’m free and it’s still my working hours, I’ll reply as soon as possible (which is often something like 10 minutes); if I’m not but the email seems important, I’ll acknowledge it. If you need a quick reply, the decision has to be a joint one: say so, say by when and – most importantly – say why.
  3. “Emails are not real-time, and I’m in a hurry.” – It’s because you get to make phone calls willy-nilly that you start to assume you’re justified every time you think you’re in a hurry, without waiting to evaluate if the matter is actually urgent or you’re just an impatient time-brat. But often this extends to email, too: unless you’re my boss, simply insisting you’re in a hurry isn’t going to get you anywhere if I’m in a hurry, too.
  4. “I’m just following-up to make sure…” – Dude, email works. If you’ve sent me an email, I’ve got it (unless you’ve spelt my name and/or the organisation ID wrong; in that case the email server will send you a heads-up). Follow-ups are okay if the recipient hasn’t replied for at least 24 hours, or in particularly extenuating circumstances like being promised a reply by a certain deadline and for that deadline to have been missed.
  5. This is an organisation-specific thing, although I suspect it’d apply to many small newsrooms: Don’t cc a bunch of editors if your email only needs the attention of one of them, or you’ll bloat their inboxes with emails they may never need to read, destroy their peace of mind and incur their ire. You can also avoid the bystander effect. If you email three editors, each one will think one of the other two will respond while focusing their attention on the billion other emails that only they can answer.

It doesn’t matter to me that someone else’s inbox has 12,353 unread emails and that that doesn’t affect them. Having more than a couple dozen unread emails at a time stresses me out. And I think it might be better if we all assumed this is the case with all email recipients. The less mindful you become about using email, the more you encourage the recipient to impose an extremely high bar of acceptance on the email’s contents, maybe even reject whatever you’re writing about on the first available excuse.

(The less said about spammy websites the better, although Indian government websites have been particularly awful. One ID shared to IRCTC while booking a train ticket will suddenly mean updates about ‘Mann Ki Baat’, job openings at ISRO and posters from the Indian Army telling me about the perks of signing up.)

How we communicate with each other at work also has a mental-health side that too many people overlook too often. There is no device vibrating furiously on my table, a name wrought bright on the screen, with a green icon insisting I drag it up. There are no single ticks waiting to turn double or grey ticks waiting to turn blue. Many people are able to organise their work lives around phone calls and WhatsApp messages; I find them too intrusive.

However, the act of intruding isn’t the technology’s doing, even if it facilitates the intrusion. Users can often make a decision to be less intrusive, and they need to do so more often.1 They need to remember that there’s a way to use email wrong and that that could have the same effect as phone calls. Inculcating email discipline could also help others use email more peacefully, without having to contemplate paid-for solutions they may not be able to afford just to get away from your habits.

Finally, this is a two-way street: you can’t be an email user in bad faith – never responding to any emails and/or using it in infuriating ways yourself – and expect others to be different. My own pleas are suffixed by what I aspire to offer in return, and in fact what all emails should elicit: broadly, an honest, sound, considered reply.

1. Of course, I write here in the extremely limited context of a well-to-do urban email-user corresponding mostly with others who fit the same description. Smartphones in general are intrusive but we can’t just use them differently and incur the attendant benefits if other people don’t join you and continue using smartphones as usual.