Email is my alpha and omega, my file-system and social register, my backup and my memoir. If I need to find a document, I don't search my hard-drive; I search my email for the copy I sent to someone when it was done. I sometimes write novels on email, sending out the day's pages to a mailing list of well-wishers who keep me honest, nudging me if I miss a page. Version control? Who needs it? Just find all the copies I sent or received and order them by date!
With several million pieces of archived email -- and hundreds of non-spam messages arriving daily -- you'd think that I was kind of guy who'd carry an email-based mobile phone, a crackberry or Treo or iPhone or what-have-you. You'd think that I ran some kind of IM in the background, and picked up the phone a dozen times a day to chat.
You'd be wrong.
I don't even have a menubar display that tells me when I have new mail. When I'm being disciplined, I keep my mail-fetch interval at one hour (though I usually end up resetting it to 10 minutes or even five).
You see, I love communicating too much to be interrupted. Whether I'm writing an essay or a novel, composing an email, or chattering with someone by voice, the last thing I want is to be given a jolt of useless adrenaline every time something new lands in my queue. Indeed, the oppressive weight of the knowledge that the queue is lengthening is enough to stress me out -- any time I go away for a day or a week, all I can think of is that mountain of mail accumulating on my server.
Linda Stone recently coined the term "email apnea," to refer to the involuntary holding of the breath on confronting such a mountain. Stone went on to note all the negative health effects arising from breathing irregularities and speculated that the stress of coping with mail-mountains would eventually come to light as a major health-risk.
So I eliminate the mountain: when I go away for an email fast (usually coinciding with a holiday), I set up an auto-responder advising correspondents that I'm away and that I “won't be reading their email” when I get back, asking that they re-send anything urgent after my return (I make sure a few key people, like my business-partners, parents, and agent know how to reach me by phone). When I sit down at my desk again after the break, I download all my mail while I have a little walk or tidy up my desk. Once it's all downloaded, I select every last message and delete them. No email apnea.
The mature information worker is someone who can manage his queues effectively, prioritizing and re-prioritizing as new items crop up, doing the fast-context-switching necessary to respond to an email while waiting for a file to download or a backup to complete. It's a little like spinning plates, and when you get the rhythm of it, it can be glorious. There's a zone you slip into, a zone where everything gets done, one thing after another clicking into place.
But once you add an interruptive medium like IM, unscheduled calls, or pop-up notifiers of mail, flow turns into chop. The buzz, blip, and snap of a thousand alerts turn plate-spinning into hell, as random firecrackers detonate over and over again, on every side of you, always there in your peripheral vision, blowing your capacity to manage your own queue as they rudely insert themselves into your attention.
For the brief time that I carried a crackberry in 1999, it was like someone had attached a slowly turning, inward-pointing woodscrew to the inside of the case, and every time it vibrated, the screw turned one half-twist, burrowing deeper into my hip and ratcheting through the nerve. Even once I'd turned off the vibe alert, there was the blinking light, and then, after I taped that over, the endless knowledge that the mail was spooling up there.
I'm an email pro and that means that any time I'm sitting down and in a position to answer mail, chances are I have my laptop in front of me, with full keyboard, searchable archive and macros galore. Getting mail while you're away from the keyboard might be nice if you get a few messages per day, or if you're trapped after an avalanche, but if you get heavy email load, it's the pits, a nagging reminder that there's stuff that needs doing that you can't do, even as you try to get something else done, a little nag that you can never fully silence, for the nag moves quickly from the device into your own subconscious.
There's a world of difference between queue-able and interruptive media, and we bridge it at our peril.
— Cory Doctorow, Internet activist, blogger, co-editor of Boing Boing