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Sunday 25 September 2016

Fighting back against the tyranny of email

Published 04/07/2016 | 02:30

That's better: Deleting emails gives you the illusion of control.
That's better: Deleting emails gives you the illusion of control.

There's nothing I like more than a good session of email deleting. You know when you get an hour to spare in the evening and the bit between your teeth and you go for it? And it feels like taking control of your life. And you start going back. And you slash and burn.

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Ninety per cent of it is simple. Most emails I get are rubbish, spam from various PR people, not just here but in the UK and indeed further field, who have clearly got my details from some directory or other, and who want to ask me to do a piece about anything from their beauty products to their garden furniture to a new obscure history book. They will tell me that Lord SnuffyMcSnuffington OBE is available for interview about his new tome on some general from the Crimean War. Or  they might say they have a new range of floor covering and would we please include an article on it. To which my answer is not really, no. Not that I answer them. I ignore them all. But they keep coming.

They keep coming all the time. Part of the reason I try to get a good run at culling at night is because at least if you do it at night there aren't loads more coming as you are deleting. I got stuck into it during the day once and between culling rubbish and answering the ones I should have answered, and then dealing with new ones coming in, I was actually making no progress on anything else. I began to feel that if I engaged in earnest with my email I would actually end up doing nothing else except deleting and answering emails. Because when you start answering emails back, then you get a flourishing of new emails from those people and it becomes this self-perpetuating vortex. You basically get trapped in the web and wonder how you ever do anything except serve the email.

Do it at night and you can go back a month or six weeks, slashing and burning and answering ones you should have answered but without getting an immediate response back. And you can even read some of those really important articles that you thought you really should read when someone emailed them to you. And for a brief moment, you feel you have cleaned out your world, and you are on top of things. And the waterfall won't start again until the next morning. So for one brief moment, you are in control.

Now, obviously, in order to get this fleeting feeling you have to draw a line in the sand at some point. You can't go right back through the tens of thousands of emails that sit there waiting for your attention from as far back as 2011 in the case of my computer. You have to decide that once you go back a month or six weeks and deal with everything there, then you must be happy to have tended that little allotment, and you must ignore the jungle that lies beyond that.

Anything more than a month or two old is probably too late to get back to, and if it's important, they'll be back to you again.

Sometimes I get emails from people who are clearly having a binge/purge. I get a response to some email I sent them weeks ago and promptly forgot about. And I like it. Because I know what they are doing. They are trying to enjoy the illusion that they are on top of everything. And I don't think ill of them for not getting back to me straight away. Because I know how it is. Things get lost in the waterfall. And I don't begrudge them their moment of clarity, when they are zipping through things, responding, and feeling good about it, getting all those little niggles out of the back of their head about emails they probably should have got back to but didn't.

A friend of mine is always telling me that Michael Palin sets aside an hour every day to deal with emails. And then ignores them apart from that. And that's all very well, but I'm thinking, who has an hour a day to devote to emails? And who has the luxury of ignoring them for the rest of the day? Michael Palin, that's who.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying I'm sorry if I didn't get back to you. Something else must have happened in that moment when I would have replied. And then it got lost in the waterfall. Feel free to remind me if it's important. But hopefully maybe you've forgotten about it too and it's not as important as it seemed at the time. But let's not let it sit there between us as an awkwardness. Let's move on, all of us victims of this tyranny.

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