My New Year’s resolutions seem to always turn out like a batch of burnt cookies, a great mixture of concepts and ideas, with a pinch of self-righteousness that end up blackened and composted by the first month of the year.  Unfortunately for most of us, resolutions tend to be too non-specific or let’s be frank, impossible to achieve.  More often, they are set up to trick ourselves into being who we wish we could be – an effort to circumvent our own foibles.  The idea that somehow when the bell strikes midnight we magically become “better” is part of the mystique, because who doesn’t want to be version 2.0 of ourselves?

So this year, I will set some of my personal goals as usual, many of which will end up on my list next year as well (e.g. exercise more).  I also set a few academic/research goals for the New Year.  I’ll keep these to myself – except one.

I desire in the deepest way to slay the beast that haunts my day, my weekends, every vacation, and even my dreams.  Email.

“I am Steve, and I have a problem with email.” 

It seems like only yesterday that email was exciting.  The joy of seeing a new email in our box filled us with joy, because so many of them had meaning.    Now, in the modern internet era, where our email box has become a de facto battlefield – it has become my biggest bugbear.

Many of us wake in the morning, just to clear out the spam and junk mail.  Then we spend the early morning at the office decompressing so that we can fight off warnings that “Your mailbox is full.”  That is followed by the notice that if we don’t address the problem our email won’t allow us to communicate back with anyone.  Opening our email has shifted from a lively “You’ve got mail!” to a grumpy IT minion telling us to “Clean up your @#%@ mailbox!”  To say our days are driven by email is an understatement.  Have you in the last year said “All I did was deal with email all morning/afternoon/weekend?”  Then you too have a problem.

The diversity of spam and the more targeted emails has only made this more challenging.   The New York Times just had a piece that described the challenges of “fake academia.”  Every day, multiple times a day, academics have to deal with burdensome load of invitations to conferences, obscure journals, and offers to be part members of prestigious organizations.  Many of the names sound similar to other prominent journals or appear to target your area of interest.  I might get one from the “Journal of Antibiotics and Infectious Diseases” (I made this name up) – so sometimes it takes an extra second to make sure it isn’t real.

I’ll often get more from areas where I know nothing or for which I cannot fathom how I got on their mailing list.

Image 1. Example of the names that emails are addressed to me from one single day from supposed “academic conferences” (names redacted)
Why would anyone want me to write about an engineering conference in Dubai?  Or a conference on in-vitro fertilization in China?   I certainly am not qualified to be an editor for a journal on Ecology, so why even go there?  Even if I am offered the opportunity to “chair” a session – it seems ludicrous – and 999 out of 1000 it is.  My personal favorite though is the names that I get these emails sent to.  Some are on target, others just plain lazy, and some – comical (see image 1 above).  It has gotten so bad, that I warn all my students that the minute they publish a paper they should expect to start getting such “invitations.”

But what is even more troubling, is the ability to miss something truly important.  Among the sheer din of notifications and updates, we also get emails that are critical.  How many of us have missed an important email, only to remember it late at night and spend 20 minutes to find it?  How many have missed a critical update or message because it got lost in the morass?   In the last year alone, I missed a request to review a paper and an offer to speak at a local conference, amongst a bevy of other near misses.  I got an email 5 days before a scheduled talk that I had no idea about, only to discover one from 2 months prior that had scheduled me for the slot.  How did miss that one?   I was on vacation.  As every email is flagged “Important” “Urgent” “Critical”, crying wolf at every chance, we may get bitten and miss one that is really important.  And how about when we have a critical message?  Many times this year I sent a critical update about a community outbreak, or an emerging infection, that gets lost in the shuffle.  A common refrain I hear is becoming commonplace – “Did you send it to my email?  Well then I probably missed it.”  Communication through email is not as powerful as it used to be.

At the same time, email remains a critical aspect of our day – a way to communicate information rapidly and to assure messages can be broadly shared.  So how do I work to slay this personal demon?  Here are my New Year’s resolutions that will attempt to help me with this problem:

1) Add email time to my schedule.  Turn it off at other times in the day.

See email as part of the daily routine and avoid checking throughout the day.  Cull the garbage and deal with important emails at specified times.  Avoiding email except when scheduled may help save me time and make the time when I use it more valuable.   This will be an experiment in 2017 that I hope works.

2) Remove email from my phone.

Too often I open an important email to read quickly, but minutes later forget that it’s in my queue as I get hit by important new issues.  By opening email on the phone, it falls into the “read” category and quickly gets drowned out by new mail.  I also hope to stop checking email on my phone during meetings, so I can avoid becoming side-tracked when I should be focused on one issue.  Plus how often have you accidently deleted something important while messing with your phone?

I have come to understand that if it is important, people know how to find me.

3) Keep the inbox total to a minimum.

It is too hard to review over 5000 emails and when the list is too long you it becomes impossible to manage.  And finding an important email is like finding a needle in a haystack.  My goal this year is ambitious – keep my inbox to <200 emails at all times.  There I said it.  I’d like to say <50, but I know that I have to be realistic.  Can’t go complete cold turkey.

4) Respond quickly and briefly whenever possible.

Enough said – no one wants to wait for a thoughtful response and absolutely no one wants to read a novella in email form.  *If you can limit attachments even better.  I rely more and more on Basecamp and DropBox to avoid attachments when possible.

5) Pick up the phone, meet over coffee, or share ideas in person

This is can be hard and time is precious.  But we all need to walk more right?  I sometimes feel like I accomplish more meeting one on one, rather than discussing issues by email.   Email can be important for certain situations, but talking can be more valuable in other situations.  Pick and choose the times and places to make these efforts, but I’ll aim to do this more and not less.

I know that these 5 are neither unique, nor perfect for taming my email problem.  Still I see them as important first steps to developing a more health relationship with my email inbox.

“I am Steve, and I have a problem with email.” To all those that I have hurt because of it – I am sorry and I promise to get better.  I may falter this year and fail to live up to these and your expectations, but please be patient with me.  It is a hard habit to break.

I know you know what i am talking about.  Just please don’t cc me about it.

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