Jordan: Okay, it’s time for an exercise. If you are listening to this on your phone, pick it up and check your email. How many unread messages do you have? And how does that make you feel? You feel guilty even just a little bit for leaving so many people hanging, Or, I guess, more likely, leaving so many potentially great deals from online retailers unclaimed. When you come back from a vacation, what do you do with the emails you got when you were gone? Do you skim them looking for the important ones? Or do you sit down and exhaustively work your way through them until you’ve covered them all? Or even worse? Do you not have a pile of emails waiting for you because you spend part of your vacation answering emails? If you do that, you probably know that it’s really not good for you. So why do you do it? I’m not judging you here because I do it, too. What is it doing to us? And when did the emotion that accompanies an email notification switch from eagerness to see what somebody wrote to us, to anxiety propelled by dozens of insistent little tones? Is there any way to fix that? Or is it just too late for you and me and all of us, and the hundreds of thousands of emails that we will never read? I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Marina Koren is a staff writer at the Atlantic. Hi Marina.
Jordan: Let me start by asking you how many unread emails are in your inbox right now?
Marina: Oh, gosh. Do you really want to know? Do I really want to know? Let’s see. Work email: 6,304.
Jordan: Oh, that’s not so bad.
Marina: I guess not. I mean, it’s it’s in the thousands. That usually strikes me as somewhat bad.
Jordan: I have 17, 256 unopened emails in my work inbox. And that was after Claire, our lead producer who keeps inbox zero religiously, shamed me into deleting 30,000 of them this week.
Marina: Oh, wow. Does it bother you or are you okay with having that many unread emails?
Jordan: I’m gonna ask you about that a little later, ’cause I am a huge supporter of inbox infinity. But how do you deal with having so many unread emails in your work inbox. Does it bother you?
Marina: No. I’m also kind of an inbox infinity person, or just like a “let it go” kind of person. Most of the emails I get are PR pitches that, you know, go out to list serves, like they’re not directed– they’re not personal messages directed right at me. So yeah, I just don’t even bother deleting them.
Jordan: And what do you do when you go on vacation?
Marina: I set up an out of office message, and I link to this story that we’re about to talk about, just in case people are interested. And then when I come back on vacation, sometimes I break and I check my email, maybe once or twice. Just because I feel so weird being out of the loop for so long and a week feels like a long time to not check email. So I’ll check it once or twice, and then when I’m back, then I will begin the process of digging out, as we all say.
Jordan: Which is a perfect way to talk about your piece, because I want to start with, like, just to level-set the basic expectation. How does a typical out-of-office email read?
Marina: It is, you know, there is a formula. People usually say, you know, I’m out of the office until this date, I’ll be back on this other date. And I look forward to responding to you when I’m back. Something like that. It’s pretty straightforward, but I’ve just noticed recently that some messages are getting a lot more detailed. Maybe a bit more honest.
Jordan: Well, tell me about the one that it sparked your piece.
Marina: So I write about space exploration and science for the Atlantic, and I was writing about a telescope that NASA is building. So I decided to email an engineering professor at Cornell, and I said in the email, asking him to talk and right away I getting out-of-office response back. Which wasn’t a surprise, it was the middle of June, I’m assuming that a lot of people are out on vacation. And for the most part it was pretty standard. You know, I’m gone. I’ll be back soon. Thanks for your email. But there was this line toward the bottom. That said that every email he receives during this break while he’s gone will be deleted automatically. So if you wanted to reach him, you either had to send another note or just wait till he came back and ask him whatever you wanted to ask him when he was back. And I remember having like a very visceral reaction to this. I think my jaw actually dropped when I read that life.
Jordan: What kind of visceral reaction though?
Marina: My first– the line that popped into my head was, “That’s not fair.” I was offended in a way that I quickly realized was pretty unhealthy. But it just seemed like this person, this professor, that I was emailing was kind of just taking himself out of this system that we’ve built around email and not following the implicit rules that we come up with in terms of how to manage it. It just seemed wrong.
Jordan: Yeah, like what do you mean you won’t get back to the office and spend three days reading all the things that I’ve sent you while you were gone?
Marina: Right. That’s what I do. That’s what, I think, a lot of people do. And I think it’s understood for the most part that if you send me an email, I will respond to you in time eventually and vice versa. So there’s this sense of shared work. So by telling someone that you’re not gonna even look at their email until it’s convenient for them, you’re kind of shifting some of that work off of your plate and onto their plate. And so that felt kind of unfair.
Jordan: Did you get in touch with him, obviously when he got back from vacation, and ask him about it?
Marina: I did. I said something like, “Hey, I want to talk to you about this story that I’m writing about NASA. But also like, what was that?”
Jordan: What’s the deal?
Marina: How could you say that to me? Was my tone, but I didn’t put it that way. Yeah, I was really curious about what led him to do this. And he said that there came a point in his life where he just felt overwhelmed by how many emails he got. And he found that most of the emails he was getting where pretty useless. And when he did reply, it seemed like he was doing more for the person who was asking him for his time. He said that it’s much easier to just fire off an email asking someone to do something than it is to actually like, sit down and then thoughtfully consider that request. He just wanted control over his inbox, which I think is you know what a lot of us want.
Jordan: Well email maybe is not supposed to be as transactional as it has become. Like do you remember when you first got email?
Marina: Oh, yeah. I remember the very first email I got, like the very first email.
Jordan: Tell me about it.
Marina: Let’s see, I was 10-years-old and my dad had set me up with a Yahoo account. He sounded so excited. He sent me something that’s like, you know, welcome to your new email address. Now we can email each other whenever we want, and at the time I think it was the year 2000, that was a really exciting prospect. Like this was a new way to communicate, a new way to connect. And now, 20 years later, I’m like, I don’t want to look at my email anymore, and it is just– it’s kind of incredible that in such a short amount of time, we’ve gone from having a very, I think, enthusiastic relationship with digital communication to, we’re at this place where we just dread having to deal with it, and that’s kind of sad.
Jordan: I mean, this is maybe a bigger question than we can solve in this conversation. But how did we get here so quickly?
Marina: I think it’s because the more we emailed, the more our online lives became blurred with our real lives. It’s so hard to disconnect, especially for workers whose jobs require them to be online. And that includes me. I stare at my screen all day because this is where I do my reporting. This is how I write stories. This is how I communicate with people. I have no choice but to use email. And so we’re spending more and more of our lives online, on social media, with Slack messages at work, it’s impossible to disconnect.
Jordan: See my my own personal theory, and I’m obviously not the person to ask, is that it’s just, it’s easier to ask someone for something without looking them in the face, tossing a request into their inbox. I know this because the harder things I ask people for sometimes I’m tempted to do by email because I know well, they’ll just see it and maybe they’ll just do it. And then we don’t even have to have that conversation.
Marina: That is so true. And I think that part of the problem with that is for some reason, whenever I send an email to somebody asking him to do something, I’m like weirdly proud of myself, like, Oh, I can check that off my to-do list, even though it didn’t take–
Jordan: I did that!
Marina: Yeah, and it didn’t actually take that much effort. And you’re asking– you probably are asking more of the person that you’re emailing than of yourself. We feel really proud about, you know, managing our inboxes and clearing out e mails and responding to people. But it’s not like– it’s work,
Jordan: But it’s not the work.
Marina: Exactly, it’s side work.
Jordan: When you were reporting this story, did you find any research that we’ve done to the impact that all this is having on us? Because we’ve come a long way in a really short time.
Marina: I found some research on this. I found an interesting study from 2012 that had some office workers stop using email altogether for one work week and let a different group maintain their usual email use. And the researchers strapped heart rate monitors on all the participants.
Jordan: Oh, man,
Marina: Yes. So you know gonna be– that’s gonna be fun. So the participants who were cut off from email experienced significant reductions in their stress levels based on these heart rate readings. And when people came back to email and went back to their regular routines, the stress came back. So, I mean, that’s that felt pretty damning to me. Email is stressful, and we know it.
Jordan: And that was seven years ago. And I feel like we’ve come a century since then. Even. I mean, now it’s– we have different accounts on our phones and we get notifications. And now, my– if I want to set it up this way, my little Fitbit can buzz on my wrist when I get any mail.
Marina: Yeah, there is no escape. On a given day, I am emailing with people, talking to my co workers on Slack, talking to my coworkers about maybe more like touchy stuff on Signal, checking Instagram, Tweeting. It can be overwhelming. And that’s not at all how I remember email being 20 years ago when it was about emailing my dad.
Jordan: Well, and it used to be exciting to get email in the same way that it was exciting to get an actual letter in the mail because there weren’t 17,527 sitting right there.
Marina: Right. Email used to be so much more personal. And perhaps that’s why we think that email takes a lot of work these days, because those personal requests, we’re not used to them because most email we get is not really important, so we can easily brush that aside. But we do get some emails that really require some careful thought, and that does take work. And so it’s hard to just sit down and and take care of that when you could just delete hundreds of unread spam emails and feel good about that, feel like you accomplished something. It’s so much easier to get to inbox zero if none of the emails actually require you to do anything.
Jordan: So one of the reasons I wanted to have this conversation happened this week, because I got an email on my personal account from a friend that I hadn’t really spoken to, beyond like, you know, liking someone’s birthday Facebook Post, in a couple solid years. And it was, like, a long-written email and for like half a second I got that feeling back of like, Wow, I got like, this really nice personal letter. And it was that old school version of email. And at the same time, I’d read your story and was preparing my own out-of-office reply and was like, there’s two, like these are two totally different ends of the spectrum being delivered on the exact same platform. And I don’t know how to navigate– I don’t know how to to to make it feel more like one end of the spectrum and and less like the other. Have you found anyone out there in doing this work that is trying to ease that burden?
Marina: Yeah. So a couple of years ago, my colleague suggested that we rethink email, especially the way we write it, because we want to get this task done pretty quickly, we shouldn’t worry about any pleasantries or formalities like don’t worry about writing people’s names in the body of the email, they already know their names. Don’t bother with subject lines, just like right in that email what you want from this other person and send it. And that to me, also felt a little bit unfair because it removes the personal connection that you’re trying to make with that person. And it’s also, I think, it could border on rude. People just have to balance what is good for them and what works for their sanity with just cultural norms. Like it’s very hard to escape what, you know, standards everyone follows around email, so you might be saving yourself some time, but you’re coming off– you could be coming off route to other people, so you just have to decide what is more important for you.
Jordan: It is strange, though, that we adopt these conventions on email, where we try to make even a very blunt work email sound like a nice personal email. You know, you start off with, like, Hi, Ryan. I hope you’re well. How’s it going? Anyway, I need you to produce this podcast for me and get it on my desk by 5 p.m.
Marina: I don’t know what we do all that like. Sometimes I’ll get an email, someone is wishing me well, and I’ll have a second round like we don’t know me, and you don’t actually care if I’m well, you just want me to read this thing. But then I’ll go write an email to someone, and I’m like, Oh my God, hope everything’s going great exclamation mark exclamation mark! It’s just, it’s not like real life, but it is.
Jordan: What kinds of things do you think we could do that might help us ease that burden a little bit and rely less on following these email conventions and replying to every email we get and striving for that inbox zero that we’re never going to achieve?
Marina: There are a couple of big picture measures that we could take. For example, employers could encourage their staff not to check email when they shouldn’t be checking email, when they’re not at work, at night or on weekends, and have certain set hours for when they should be handling email. I think that would do– that will go a long way in easing some stress for your workers. But I think even if I worked somewhere that suggested that I take a little break from email and shouldn’t worry too much about responding to everyone and and managing my schedule, I think I almost wouldn’t believe them. Just because our obsession with responding to people on time and getting things out is just so baked into our daily lives at this point, like I think the change happens individually, with people like this professor who decided I just can’t deal with this anymore. I think we have to be okay with letting go a little bit and being okay with having a chaotic inbox or not getting back to people on time or not sending the email when we need to. Because there’s so much information thrown at us every single day, we’re going to miss something. We’re not gonna be able to address something, So a lot of this, I think, is about letting go a little bit.
Jordan: So this is where I want to talk about inbox infinity because it seems a nice way to get into it. I can’t remember which friend it was that I had, but I was at their house one time and we were family watching a movie, and someone called and nobody answered it. And I was like, nobody’s– why is nobody getting the phone? And his mom said, “If it’s important, they’ll call back.” And for whatever reason, that has stuck with me. And that’s what I tell myself whenever I stare at my list of literally messages that go back months that I’ve never clicked on and never will and probably won’t even delete. But it’s like, they will. And that’s the philosophy behind the fellow you interviewed who told you to send it when he gets back from vacation. If it’s that important and you want something that badly, you should find a way to get back in touch.
Marina: Yeah, that’s that’s actually good guidance. You know, as offended as I was to receive his out of office message at first, I get where he’s coming from. And I asked him, do you ever worry about missing something? Like the most important email of your life comes into your inbox when you’re on vacation in Hawaii, it gets deleted, you come back and just something that really could have meant a lot to you is gone. And he was just like, no, no, I can’t remember the last time I got a really life changing, earth shattering email. And I think that’s probably true. When was the last time you opened your inbox and saw something and was like, Holy crap, This is going to change everything.
Jordan: Yeah. I mean, I look at all these messages that I don’t read. I look at them when they come in, because I am actually, um, despite how proud I’m trying to sound about inbox infinity, I’m actually addicted to my phone and addicted to email, and I’m logged on at all hours of the day. So I watch these things come in and then if they don’t look important, I don’t open them. Like I know who the people at work and in my personal life are who are important to me and I need to get back to. And then other ones, they just sometimes get forgotten. And it’s not that I don’t know that they’re there, it’s just that I’m not gonna bother.
Marina: I think this is where some sense of trust comes in. If someone is sending you something important, you have to just trust that they’ll follow up if they really think it’s important. But that brings with it all kinds of other stressors, like language like circling back, just following up, just checking in, just pinging you again. There’s just so much stress involved, but we just have to wade through it, for better or worse.
Jordan: If you feel like talking about this, how would you describe the email culture in your workplace?
Marina: I would say that there is not that much of it, actually, because we are a very Slack-based newsroom. So I look at my phone first thing in the morning when I wake up and I check Slack right away. I don’t check email. So if I’m trying to report out a story and talk to sources, that definitely happens over email. But Slack is where all of our office discussions happened. That’s where the custom emoji are. You know, it’s a lot more fun there.
Jordan: There’s gifs!
Marina: Yeah, there’s so much you could do on Slack that you can’t do on email. But then there are things that are not so great about being on Slack all the time, and that is being on Slack all the time, like having Slack just further blurs the line between real life and online life, if there even is a line left, so you’re definitely more connected and that has its own, you know, risks and scary stuff associated with it.
Jordan: Did writing this story um, change how you use email?
Marina: I tried to get to inbox zero once, and I hated it.
Jordan: What did you find yourself doing?
Marina: Unsubscribing to a bunch of newsletters and retail emails that I never thought I even subscribed to in the first place. Like, I think it was definitely satisfying to unsubscribe to stuff that I didn’t want to get. But it just seemed unnecessary. Like why go through mostly useless emails just to get them out of the way when you could just, like, swim in them, in like a sea of unread emails, and you don’t have to touch them. They’re around you, but you don’t have to deal with them. That doesn’t bug me. If there are unread emails around me. I think that bugs a lot of people, they want a clean space, but maybe it’s just the way I lead my real life, like I’m a messy person. My desk is pretty cluttered. Email is just another thing.
Jordan: Did you change your out of office reply the next time you went on vacation?
Marina: I think I started saying– I definitely don’t say, I’m gonna delete all your email, get back to me when I’m actually back at the office. But I have tried it to be a bit more honest. I will say that I am on vacation, which, for some reason for me seems radical. Because so many of us are in industries where you are expected to be on all the time. And, you know, sometimes we feel guilty about even taking a break, about going on vacation. And I’m trying to push back against that. So I will tell people in my message I am on vacation because I want them to know that it’s okay to take time off for yourself. Embrace that. Go on a beach somewhere. Enjoy.
Jordan: Thanks, Marina.
Marina: Thank you so much.
Jordan: Marina Koren is a staff writer at the Atlantic. That was The Big Story. For more from us, you can head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can hit contact us, and yes, send us an email. I answered those more than I answer my own emails so pass it on. You can also find us on Twitter @thebigstoryfpn. And of course, you can find us in your little podcast application, whichever one it happens to be, you can rate and review and subscribe for free. That rhymed. Thanks for listening, I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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