I had this dream once where I was standing at the podium of a large lecture hall and all my coworkers and students were seated in front of me. Slowly, I lean into the microphone and say: “Hello, my name is David Smith and I am an emailoholic.” Then, hundreds of voices reply in unison, “Hi, David.”
This dream embodies the nightmare of my waking life. Not long ago I counted the number of times in a day that I picked up and clicked on my phone to see if I had a new email. I lost count after 50.
Unfortunately, my email issues run deeper than the mere compulsion to check my inbox. I could write a comedy skit about my various email debacles. Like the time I signed off an especially consequential email with “Respectively, David Smith,” or when I accidentally sent an out-of-office autoreply to the over 2,000 messages stored in my Outlook account. Even more embarrassing: ending a short reply to a department chair with “Love, David” (a bad habit from messaging with my wife).
It’s often hard to cap off an email. Though far from original, I’ve always been a fan of “Cheers” or “Regards”. More recently, I’ve come to appreciate the short simplicity of ending a letter with just my name: “Hi Don. I’ll get this done by Friday. David.” But whatever you do, don’t get too creative. There is no better way to ruin an otherwise good email by finishing with “Toodle-oo”, “Later Alligator”, or “Live long and prosper.”
Many of my problems with email stem from the fact that I’m dyslexic and that email has a way of bringing out the most awkward typos in even the best spellers. Because of this, I have my father proofread important letters. Yes, as a 36-year-old assistant professor I get my daddy to check my emails for good grammar. Another tactic I use to combat my predisposition for poor spelling is to respond to emails with the Wi-Fi turned off. Not only does this stop me from getting distracted from incoming messages, but it directs my replies to the outbox. Before I turn the Wi-Fi back on I review the outbox, inevitably catching many mistakes and often finding more diplomatic ways of phrasing things.
Emails from students come in many different flavours. There are those that are overly formal (“Dear Esteemed Professor Smith”), unexpectedly informal (“Yo David! When you got a sec could you…), or painfully abrupt (“Where is your office?”). When asked by students for advice on email etiquette I tell them to stick to the three golden C’s (be clear, concise, and courteous), and to avoid being overly humorous, ceremonious, or curt—and for Christ’s sake don’t curse or employ the dreaded emoji.
Email is certainly impeding on my ability to live prosperously and productively. The information technology industry is finding ever more inventive ways of embedding email into every aspect of our lives. From smart watches to internet on airplanes to the eBook on the bedside table, I feel like I’m in an online arms race for control of my concentration. And the stakes couldn’t be higher: email is a perfectly designed sponge for absorbing creativity, which is arguably the most valuable currency for academics.
I can arrive at my office in the morning with an hour and a half to write. A cup of hot coffee is on my desk, jazz is playing quietly in the background, and slowly I’m starting to feel the fizzle of an idea for the unfinished manuscript in front of me. Then I give in to the urge to check my inbox. My creativity falls back to the dark depths of procrastination, and I chew up 30 minutes on trivial emails. I finally get back to the manuscript only to have the cycle repeat itself.
So, I started myself on a strict regimen, which I’ve dubbed the “50 cents a day email diet.” It goes like this: first I removed all email apps from my phone and tablet, preventing binge checking. Second, I amassed 10 quarters in change – 50 cents for each weekday. One quarter allows me to check my email once for 25 minutes, and I can only use two per day (I move them from my left to right pocket to keep track), thus restricting me to two logins and 50 minutes of inbox time. Any unused quarters from the work week can carry forward to the weekend, but if they’re all gone, Saturday and Sunday are email free.
I’ve stuck to the 50-cent diet for two months and I’m happy to say that I’m regaining control of my time and that the manuscript finally got finished. The regimen might not work for everyone, but the concept can be easily modified – maybe you are more of a five dimes a day kind of person. But whatever you do, get creative about protecting your creativity. And from one email addict to another, don’t let the chime of an incoming message take over your life.
David Smith is an assistant professor in the biology department at Western University.