[Link] A Modest Proposal: Eliminate Email

post by arikr · 2019-03-18T00:26:28.178Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · EA · GW · 11 comments

This is a linkpost for https://hbr.org/2016/02/a-modest-proposal-eliminate-email

My note: The article describes what seems like quite a powerful way to improve the amount of deep work and therefore the quality of thinking, which seems especially relevant to many people in the effective altruism movement given the amount of "disentanglement research" and tasks that benefit from deep thought.

The article starts by conceding that email, as a technology, is not intrinsically bad. The weed that’s currently strangling knowledge work is instead the workflow enabled and prodded by the presence of this tool.
As I expanded:
Accompanying the rise of this technology was a new, unstructured workflow in which all tasks — be it a small request from HR or collaboration on a key strategy — are now handled in the same manner: you dive in and start sending quick messages which arrive in a single undifferentiated inbox at their recipients. These tasks unfold in an ad hoc manner with informal messages sent back and forth on demand as needed to push things forward.
This workflow, I argued, leads inevitably to a state where constant email checking, during work hours and beyond, become necessary to keep the wheels of progress turning. And this state, in turn, is transforming knowledge workers into exhausted human network routers who are producing at a fraction of their cognitive capacity.
"The natural follow-up question, of course, is what qualifies as a “better” workflow. Even the most strident email opponents recognize that we need some way to coordinate and communicate with colleagues. To validate the idea that organizations can thrive without this tool, let me offer a concrete alternative inspired by my own experience in academia: office hours."
I concluded:
Given the tangled relationship between email and our current approach to work, however, it’s also clear that [a transformation to a better workflow] is almost certainly going to require a radical first step: to eliminate email.

https://hbr.org/2016/02/a-modest-proposal-eliminate-email

It would be interesting to see this develop in the EA community: people getting rid of email in favor of virtual, online office hours (perhaps using something like periscope, which allows people to stream themselves, and allows anyone to "drop in" on their stream and ask questions). In the pursuit better answers to problems that benefit from deep work.

11 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Khorton · 2019-03-18T17:31:12.930Z · score: 7 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

There are a few EA organisations (CEA, LEAN, Founder's Pledge) that should definitely NOT give up email. That's because their main purpose is coordinating, rather than creating. They are like the talent agency that Cal talks about in the blog post below; if anything, they should be more responsive than they currently are. http://calnewport.com/blog/2018/11/01/you-are-not-a-talent-agent-so-why-do-you-work-like-one/

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley3) · 2019-03-18T15:14:59.514Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I always find these sentiments strange because I find what I love about email and dislike about other forms of online communication is that email is strongly asynchronous and puts me in a lot of control of how I choose to interact with it. Slack, IRC, and other more synchronous forms of communication (even if they are supposedly asynchronous in some cases they are designed and used with synchronous use in mind) are much harder for me to be in control of how I use them because there are stronger cues to use them in interrupt-driven ways. Email can, of course, degenerate in this way, and it seems that's what happens in some cultures (offices, etc.), but then the problem is the culture, not the tool.

If you dislike a particular email (or Slack or in-person) culture you don't like, change it, not the tools. If you don't, you'll just end up unhappy on a different tool.

comment by arikr · 2019-03-18T17:03:55.516Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yes, I hear your thoughts that if the culture was a certain way, then it wouldn't be an issue.

I resonate with the author's point though too, that because the marginal cost of email is now so low, it requires an explicit cultural intervention to improve the harm-benefit tradeoff of email.

The cultures didn't have the problem, then email came around, now they do have the problem, so in some ways the problem is both the culture and the tool, and could be solved by modifying either.

comment by Holly_Elmore · 2019-03-18T22:08:55.699Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

It doesn't solve all the problems of email, but as a first step, but why not simply have email checking hours instead of office hours? Almost all the shittiness of email for me isn't about the medium but the "always on" expectation. In my current job (ABD Phd student), I can restrict email checking to 2 or 3 times a day, and I'm pretty happy with that.

Hell, if people just had the expectation that emails will take at least 24 hours to answer, I think we'd be way better off. People don't prepare their initial inquiries well because sending an email is so cheap. If they weren't expecting a back-and-forth to get at the real issue for the next day, then they might do a better job figuring out their actual question in the first place.

comment by arikr · 2019-03-18T22:46:58.358Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I like this!

Bonus points if the org used software to encourage this, e.g. making the inbox not visible without a second "yes, I'm sure" click unless it was during the email checking hours.

comment by Khorton · 2019-03-18T22:25:43.024Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

This would actually be very easy at any sympathetic organisation. Just set an autoreply to say 'I check my emails at 9 am every day,' or 'I check my emails on Tuesday afternoons.'

comment by Holly_Elmore · 2019-03-19T22:51:27.135Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Autoreplies get out of hand really quick. When the autoreply bug goes through a work environment, pretty soon autoreplies are 60% of your inbox. Out of courtesy for others, I only use them for vacations.

I used to have my urgent email address in my signature so truly urgent emails could get my attention (push notification to phone). My advisor found the instructions and the implication that all emails are not important to be condescending, so I removed it. But I might reinstate it if my next position increases my email burden.

comment by Khorton · 2019-03-19T23:15:01.843Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yes, you're right - including it in your signature is better.

comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2019-03-18T07:28:14.855Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

As far as I'm aware, most of the biggest EA organizations are heavy users of Slack, which is somewhat better on these fronts than email. They're also generally friendly to researchers who have a personal policy of checking email infrequently (as it's widely recognized how distracting email can be).

I'm in favor of much of what this article recommends; I just think we're on that path already. (I'd be interested to see concrete anti-email suggestions that could push us even further, though!)

comment by arikr · 2019-03-18T17:01:25.371Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Could you explain how Slack is better on these fronts than email? My intuition is that Slack would be worse on these fronts than email (I think in part because I've seen one or two medium posts that talk about the always on IM culture and how it makes it harder to do focused work).

comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2019-03-18T20:24:32.499Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Slack's not perfect, but here are some features I like:

  • Emotes let you "respond" to a message in less than a second with zero typing. At CEA, we have an "eyes" emote that means "I've seen this message", which saves me 30 seconds over sending a "thanks for sending this, I've read it" email. We have lots of other emotes that stand in for other kinds of quick messages. I send a lot less email at CEA than I did in my most recent corporate job, at a tech firm with pretty standard messaging practices.
  • Channels act as a proactive sorting system. CEA has an "important" channel for time-sensitive things that everyone should read and a "general" channel for things that everyone should read, but that aren't time-sensitive. If all the messages on those channels were emails, I'd wind up reading them all as they came in, but in Slack I can ignore most of them until I hit the time in my day when I want to catch up on messages, without spending any energy on sorting.

Slack also has a feature that lets you set "statuses" in the same way the HBR article discusses (e.g. "working on important thing, available after 4:00 pm"), which takes less time than writing an auto-reply and also doesn't add dozens of automated emails to other people's inboxes when they try contacting you.