Friday, March 16, 2018

Not all email is created equal

Every few years I write a post about problems that email creates. Such a post is here.
Over the past few years, I have become aware that smartphones have reduced the effectiveness and efficiency of email. Many people now read email on a smartphone and this increases the likelihood that
- they read it even faster and so are less likely to digest anything of substance
- they won't open or can't read attachments properly
- they are less likely to reply
- if they do reply, they are more likely to have a knee-jerk response
- it is a less important communication channel that SMS, Messenger, WhatsApp, ...
- they are more likely to forward a message that they should think twice about forwarding
- they will not take the action that the email requests.

If the email message is "Shall we meet at 1pm for lunch?" then none of this matters.
However, there are some email messages that consider weightier matters such a detailed discussion of a scientific question, a proposed new policy of substance,  a personal relationship issue, ...

I welcome suggestions on how to tackle this problem.


  1. An basic time management rule from the days when many things came in paper form was "only touch a piece of paper once". The same idea should be applied to email. Having a system that allows you to promptly and accurately respond to requests such as "which days in the week of April 3 are you in town" helps everyone. Flipping through email on a phone does not seem conducive to this.

  2. It was very notable that you could tell who had got a smart-phone, when they suddenly stopped replying to emails properly!

    For myself, on my smartphone I read 'informative' emails (seminar announcements + etc.), then archive them. This I think is a good use for a few minutes waiting for a lift etc. For emails that require responses, I ensure I set them as 'unread' on my smartphone, and reply on a real computer. Similar to Prof Sholl's time management suggestion, I try to avoid reading 'serious' emails at all on my device, so I can read, think & reply in one sitting.

  3. Prof Scholl and Jarvist make good comments. I personally try and avoid looking at email on my phone for exactly these reasons.

    I would like to see email for important things. The "what time should we have lunch" is be best left to a messaging system.

    I have started using Slack with some colleagues recently. It is basically a messaging system on steroids that works for groups and discussions. I am hopeful that it will help with my email troubles.

  4. I introduced Slack to the previous group I was a PDRA in, and have used it fairly continuously for 4 years.
    Positives: Many fewer emails. Immediate response to minor issues. Less 'friction' to communicating (due to it being less formal than writing an email with a salutation, structured paragraphs etc.). Natural segregation of importance (i.e. lunch requests / suggestions go in #lunch!).
    Negatives: Perpetuates the 'always on' culture in academia. Low friction to communicate means quite a lot of shallow questions asked. Quite a lot of 'fear of missing out'. Very difficult to catch up on any discussion (you end up with ~200 one-line messages in a channel), if you do try to use it asynchronously. Closed source.

    Recently I've become very interested in Zulip Chat. It's a similar idea to Slack, but combined with better threading. This makes it more like a discussion forum / gmail thread, while also allowing instant 'chat' like interaction when working together on last-minute edits to a paper etc. I think this is a very good fit to academia, and allows for proper async use + updating weeks/months/years old discussions (i.e. projects). It's certainly what I'd chose to use if and when I'm a PI!