Confessions, and corrections, of an email addict

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 leaned into the microphone and said, “Hello, my name is David Smith and I am an emailoholic.” Hundreds of voices replied 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 I picked up and clicked on my iPhone to see if I had a new email. I lost count after 50. I have a feeling academics are particularly prone to being inveterate emailers.

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 more than 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 too often).

Many of my problems with email stem from the fact I’m dyslexic and 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 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 Wi-Fi turned off. Not only does this stop me from getting distracted by incoming messages, it directs my replies to the outbox. Before I turn Wi-Fi on, I take a breather and review the outbox, inevitably catching mistakes and often finding more diplomatic ways of phrasing things.

Sometimes email can be death by a thousand clicks.

For the past three years, I’ve co-taught a course with more than 1,000 students. I soon learned class-related emails could chew through my work life like an academic flesh-eating disease. My co-instructor and I developed a series of coping strategies, including creating a course email account that allowed us to address student queries for a fixed amount of time each day while providing a means to disengage. We also added a section to the syllabus called Email Conduct, which reads, “Wait at least 48 hours before sending a reminder email,” and, “Take time to cool off – wait at least a day to email after an exam.” I’ve also had to accept I will not always be able to reply promptly or in great detail to each student.

Emails from students come in many different flavours. Some 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 Cs: be clear, concise and courteous. Avoid four other Cs: cute, ceremonious, curt­, cursing.

And can we all agree to ditch the dreaded emoji?

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.”

Email is certainly impeding my ability to live prosperously and productively. The information technology industry is finding ever more inventive ways of imbedding email into every aspect of our lives. From smart watches to internet on airplanes to the eBook on the bedside table, I’m in an online arms race for control of my concentration.

And the stakes couldn’t be higher: email is a sponge that absorbs creativity, arguably the most valuable currency in 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 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.

Sadly, this cycle can follow me home and impinge on my family life.

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 smart 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. I can use only 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, I’m regaining control of my time and 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 Email Diet kind of person.

Whatever your strategy, 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.

Biology professor David Smith can be found online at arrogantgenome.com. This piece was originally published in University Affairs.