Listen to this article
The other day I was exchanging emails about some chore with a woman I’d never met. At one point she wrote: “Well, have a lovely break over the weekend, I must say I’m looking forward to a few days off, specially if this sun keeps shining.” Think of the time wasted: hers in writing this, mine in reading it. Then multiply it by several billion. This is the world today: we now spend 28 per cent of working time on email, according to the McKinsey Global Institute in 2012. Email should have been the best business tool since the telephone. Instead it has become the biggest time-waster since television.
Pundits typically recommend email moderation: check only twice a day, for instance. But as banking shows, self-regulation doesn’t always work. After 20 years online, I’m still addicted. Partly it’s because email offers a mindless break from work without even the hassle of getting up. Partly it’s the eternal dream of good news. (“Hi Simon, Steven Spielberg here. I loved your column! Can we make it into a movie?”) My colleagues Tim Harford and Lucy Kellaway have recently addressed the problem of email. But I favour more drastic remedies.
Modernise email etiquette. Any medium requires time to develop an etiquette: Alexander Graham Bell wanted to start phone calls with “Ahoy” but then Thomas Edison came up with “Hello”. Today’s etiquette for email is all wrong. We still model emails on letters: “Hi Simon . . . Love, Scarlett.” Instead, the model should be teenagers’ text messages. Write without greetings, capital letters or punctuation and, as the Twitter user @NarrowTheAngle suggested when I consulted Twitter’s collective brain, “youcouldconsidergettingridofspacesbetweenwordstoo”. Possibly relax these rules when emailing the Queen at her personal address.
Keep your email address private. Email began as a democratic medium but now the elite is sealing itself off. One famous chief executive let it be known that he – not a secretary – read his emails. That made employees hesitate before writing to him: nobody wanted to waste his time.
The elite retreats from every medium. As Paul Husbands shows in The People’s President, US presidents went from receiving random citizens at the White House to not even reading their letters. Later, the elites got ex-directory phone numbers. Today, elites have unguessable email addresses (Ytlsfo@email.com, say), which they only give to other elites. Their official addresses are just for show. We plebs should follow suit. Post a fake email address online, then never check it.
The authorities should stamp out time wasting. It’s a myth concocted by the anglophone media that France banned work emails after 6pm – but France should have. Similarly, companies could activate their email servers only twice daily. Anyone needing contact in between could phone. I recall circa 1996 the FT refusing to introduce email in the building, reasoning that it was a time-wasting fad. That was probably correct. Seers such as Alan Greenspan, the former head of the US Federal Reserve, expected the internet to boost productivity but this hasn’t happened.
Emailers shouldn’t expect replies. A reader once sent me the perfect email: “I did enjoy your piece last week – great fun. Best wishes (no need to ack[nowledge].” Almost every email should end “no need to ack”. Then you wouldn’t spend half your birthday answering “happy birthday” emails. Companies should automatically put “do not reply” in the subject heading, and leave the onus on the user to change it.
The key point: whenever you email someone you are intruding, stealing time that they could be spending with their family – or without their family. You certainly shouldn’t be blithely asking them for unpaid services. There’s one dreaded email, familiar to every professional writer, known as “Will you read my script?” The correct answer is, “Certainly. My hourly rate is . . . ”
Probably the best business secret Sir Alex Ferguson, the former Manchester United manager, will have to impart at Harvard Business School is what he once told Tony Blair’s aide Alastair Campbell: don’t let people steal your time with petty requests. Ferguson said:
“People want to get into your space. Only you decide who gets into your space.” Ferguson’s message for petitioners: “I think you can resolve this yourself.”
If anyone demands a reply, punish them. If somebody writes, “Please could you go over this again, answering my queries”, then respond with tedious questions of your own. George Orwell used this method to deter time-wasting publishers.
A more radical solution: never reply. My FT colleague Jonathan Eley tweeted me his advice: “When you go on holiday, set up Gmail to delete incoming emails so you don’t have to spend a day going through them.” A friend of mine from pre-internet days had a similar policy: he never opened boring letters. Sometimes this produced negative shocks: he’d belatedly discover, say, that he’d run up a £100 library fine. On the upside, he didn’t spend any time on administration.
I think I may have hit upon a solution to the global economic crisis.
To comment on this article please post below, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published