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Why You Might Not Want to “Reply To All” (and Other Email Reforms)

August 8, 2014, 11:13 am

e6c8_reply_allThere are lots of ways for university profs to waste their own, and everyone else’s, time, but email is a huge one. It has all the disadvantages of old-timey paper memos, as well as the capacity of social media to distract. Every once in a while on Facebook or on a blog, someone I e-know confesses to having upwards of four to five thousand emails in his or her inbox, awaiting an answer of some kind. Probably about 3/5 of these are utterly useless, past due documents. However, people are so afraid to look at what they haven’t done, as well as what they should do, that the emails just sit there and loom. At least a third of these messages will be the same email, in which everyone on the recipient list has hit “reply to all” multiple times.

To purge or not to purge: that is question. And if you purge without reading, much less responding, when you are drowning in email, is that a terrible thing? As a historian, I worry that we will have a very incomplete record of how intellectuals functioned after 1990 because our work, increasingly transferred to email, will not have been properly archived. On the other hand, do we really need the multiple responses after people have hit “reply to all” that say “Great!” “Agreed!” or the ones that begin “Just chiming in to say that I think this is a terrific idea”? Probably not. In fact, perhaps these emails never need to be sent in the first place.

You think I waste time on blogging? You should see the time I waste on email. I spend probably about 90 – 120 minutes a day answering, filing, deleting and purging my email, which is how I keep it under control.

Some years ago, a blog post alerted me to a behavior among academics, which is that many of us use email as a to-do list, just as we used to pile all those paper memos on our desks, imagining that we might read them some day. This results in several phenomena:

  • Forgetting about everything below the fold. People who do this respond, or partially respond, to a number of things sent to them today, but requests made as recently as a few days or a week ago are unlikely to be fulfilled. As an email slips to number 51 on the depth chart, it is likely to become a….
  • Flounder email. Flounder emails swim around down at the bottom of an increasing crowded inbox, often growing larger (in your mind, at least) as the task goes undone or the question unanswered. Eventually, the task becomes more or less irrelevant, except that you impose an onerous burden on your colleagues and collaborators, which is that they need to….
  • Send more emails to remind you of your responsibilities, filling everyone’s into with another email. Fortunately for you and nearly everyone else like you, probably about half of the things that are proposed in committee meetings never see the light of day. Or perhaps not fortunately, because one of the reasons administrators are often a popular solution to university governance is because many of the initiatives for which faculty take responsibility are a lower priority for nearly everyone than teaching, writing, taking care of the household and world politics. This is why it is easy to be an administrative star as a faculty member if…
  • You take care of your email, keep it organized in folders, and organize your actual professional life in other applications like Google Calendar and Evernote. I wasn’t born knowing how to do this, you understand: some years ago, I started having Chronicle of Higher Education alerts delivered daily to my iPad, alerts that include the free blogs, Wired Campus and ProfHacker. In addition to numerous other great ideas for keeping your life organized, there is the occasional article about email.

But to return to the “reply to all” problem: why do we generate so much useless email? I think there are good reasons and bad reasons. Good reasons include:

  • Consultation anxiety. Consultation is one of the core values of good colleagueship. Thus, we believe that if we have sent a reply to all — regardless of how unnecessary — we have consulted, which may or may not be the case.
  • Fear that others will feel angry and left out. This is related to consultation anxiety, as well as a second common academic problem: #coveryourassititis. In there words, if everyone knows that you have responded, everyone also knows that you are a team player.

But actually, most people hit reply to all without thinking about it, thus generating long chains in which two or three people are consulting with each other, while the rest of us are hitting “delete.” The problem is, the recipient has to read (and perhaps file) each email in order to learn that she is not actually being addressed.

What’s the takeaway for this post? First, get on top of your email before school starts. What this means is that you can set up folders for the things that really matter, search for them in your in box, and file them in bulk. Erase everything that is left over, and that you have not received in the last two weeks. Second, set an example and don’t send unnecessary email. This might mean picking up the telephone, or it might mean stretching your legs and walking a few dozen yards to someone else’s office to talk about it rather than writing a series of emails. Third, think before you hit reply to all. Not everybody wants to know everything but, more importantly, the more unnecessary email we write and read, the less time we have for anything that matters.

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