Tag Archives: “screen thrall”

Coping with the E-Mail Tide

Image: Kevin Phillips
                              Image: Kevin Phillips

For most of us something like a “rule of 10” applies: for every 10 messages in our inbox there may be one with some relevance to our lives.

Nearly everyone is overwhelmed with too many emails.  Those that work in large organizations are especially likely to face the same daily high tide that rushes in at a rate of one or two every few minutes.  So this requires a daily routine that includes clearing out our inbox, which means getting rid of a lot ‘fishing’ emails from outside groups, not to mention missives from fellow workers who use the “send to all” button as an easy claim to institutional relevancy.

The simple problem is that the system feeds on itself.  The more emails we answer the more we get. And for most of us something like a “rule of 10” applies: for every 10 messages there is one that may have some relevance to our lives. Sometimes the ratio seems more like 100 to 1.  The bigger problem is that email is usually a distraction that keeps us from doing more useful things.

How can we deal with this sponge on our time?  The strategies vary, none of them perfect. Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian recommends a solution tried by Tony Hsieh, the President of Zappos.

He calls it “Yesterbox,” because the premise is that you should stop focusing on email received today, except when urgent, and instead try to deal with everything that came in yesterday. It’s an idea so simple, your first response might legitimately be, “Huh? What difference could that make?” A big one, it turns out.

The logic is that a “closed list” of yesterday’s emails is easier to get through.  Burkeman notes that “in your Yesterbox, you’re no longer on a treadmill: one email dealt with means one fewer to deal with; the target you’re aiming for isn’t receding constantly into the distance.”  That may be true, but it’s small comfort and a minor psychological advantage gained over working from the most recent to the oldest.

Here are some additional suggestions that can result in spending less time each day on stuffed in-boxes, even within an organization that treats email as the “official” channel of communication.

  1. Turn off the audio email notifications on your computer.  They feed our curiosity and can break the rhythm of more significant work.
  2. Check email only once or twice a day.  Give it the lower priority it usually deserves.
  3. Save email for the low part of your daily productivity curve.  If you are the most creative and energetic in the morning, don’t waste your time on it then.  The tedium of going through it can probably wait until that after-lunch miasma kicks in.
  4. Don’t substitute texting for email.  The norm of instant response for texts can be a major time-killer, intensifying the problem you are trying to solve.
  5. Spend more time in “airplane mode,” even when you are on the ground.  Our addiction to screens is real and growing.  In order to tame it, set aside sizable segments of the day when you are more available in real space more than virtual space.  Anyway, you look smarter when not seen by friends and coworkers frozen into a “screen thrall,” which looks only slightly better than drooling in public.
  6.  Like most most forms of communication, emails from co-workers usually have an expressive purpose that outweighs the need to respond.  For these a simple acknowledgment is enough.
  7. Some groups are serial offenders in over-sending messages.  Attempts to unsubscribe or block them will probably not work.  Learn to be fast with the delete key for these groups.  And if you do reach a live body at the organization, express your displeasure with their abuse of your inbox.

Now, if I can just get with the program myself. . .

Additional Suggestions? Comment at Woodward@tcnj.edu
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The Necessity of Acknowledgement

Source: SHED-5-restaurant, Melbourne, Australia
Source: SHED-5-restaurant, Melbourne, Australia

The averted gaze preserves our isolation until an expectation of reciprocity forces us out. 

The Important Person has just turned the corner at the far end of the hall. She’s with an associate, walking in my direction. In another few seconds we will pass each other in the middle of this long narrow hall. Will the Important Person notice me? Will her glances to her associate give way to a glance in my direction?  In the Important Person’s world do I even exist?

The essential ritual of acknowledging another is a cornerstone of our sociality. “Communication” can mean transferring the most complex of ideas or feelings.  But stripped to its essential core, it usually includes simple gestures that confirm another person’s existence: their basic worth. This basic process of affirmation can be in real time, or communicated electronically. As with the example of the pending encounter with the Important Person, its most interesting to observe in the flesh. The body language is so clear.  We are in constant search of facial cues from others that we matter to them, that we have status, that we are an agent of potential value.

This ritual has its cultural rules that vary somewhat from society to society. In American life most of the work of affirming or denying recognition is done with the eyes, where looking in the direction of another is the signature act of recognition. The establishment of this plane of mutual eye contact is essential. Saying something to another simply doesn’t work very well if we can’t catch that person’s gaze.

Imagine another common but more complex scene. With another person I am eating dinner in a crowded New York restaurant. Its layout is a typical arrangement: a continuous banquette along one wall faces a series of small individual tables, as in the photo above. Spaces between the tables amount to little more than a few inches. In this series of “table for two” arrangements I am in the chair and my partner is seated on the banquette against the wall.

Here’s the challenge. This arrangement poses a problem for waitstaff. The server’s mandate for good service means she can’t fully engage people on my side without establishing a plane of direct eye contact.  But she will need to perform the physically uncomfortable task of specifically addressing us by leaning in to our sides so her face can be seen. As a customer I can make the task easier by turning my head in her direction, or next to impossible if I don’t. And I’m impressed, because doing this wrenching twist of the body to show deference must leave a server with at least a sore neck.

In a crowded place like Manhattan direct eye contact on the street provides the opportunity for more “communication” than most people want. It’s too much work and perhaps risky to try to acknowledge everyone whose personal space you invade, like those facing each other on a subway. In such circumstances we do look at people and their faces, but this gaze is usually stolen: timed to be more or less unseen by the other. This kind of stolen glance preserves our isolation until we are again among people where there is an expectation of reciprocity.

We sometimes seem to prefer the electronic facsimile of another person over the one we know directly in front of us. The result can be its own small wound of rejection.

Source: Cindy Chew, S.F. Examiner
                Source: Cindy Chew, S.F. Examiner

If you are in an environment that might be broadly considered a community—for example, an office, a college campus, a faith community, a school—the averted gaze in another’s presence is increasingly common and usually off-putting. With those we know we expect an offer of acknowledgement through eye contact. This is the source of  the anxiety in the first example of encountering the Important Person. But communities must now also contend with competition for an individual’s attention from many sources, one of which is what I call “screen thrall:” the increasingly ubiquitous habit of community members to looking away from approaching others, shifting attention down to their cell-phones. It’s endemic in most settings, even when individuals are known to each other. My impression is that, for some people, it has turned into an automatic response: the equivalent of Bill Murray trying to avoid Groundhog Day’s insurance-selling Ned.

A practical and ironic effect of using a mobile device is that it now works as a tool not just for connection, but also isolation.  The stance characterized by screen thrall says “I’m not available.” It’s another case where we sometimes seem to prefer the electronic facsimile of another person over the one we know directly in front of us. The result can be its own small wound of rejection.

Comments:  woodward@tcnj.edu