Opinion: email has become the bane of many people's working and personal life so is there any way back?

Email was originally a tool developed by the US Department of Defense to allow users of military computer networks to communicate with one another. In its early years, it was little more than a method a few academics used to send papers and queries to one another.

But for many people, email has evolved to become the bane of their working life, and often their personal life too. During the 2016 US presidential election, Hillary Clinton was heavily criticised for using a private email server while working as Secretary of State, and deleting 33,000 emails, accumulated over several years, that she claimed were not work related. 

My initial reaction was "only 33,000?". On a slow day, I receive 50 emails, 40 of which are not worth reading, and the total is often closer to 100 a day. In a year or two, I think I could easily outpace Hillary's total of 33,000 worthless emails.

We need your consent to load this YouTube contentWe use YouTube to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From Today I Found Out, the first email and the origin of the '@' symbol

Almost everyone hates emails, but it does not stop us from sending them. Email is easy, and the informal rules of email allow people to ignore punctuation, grammar and syntax ("Hey bro, 'sup?" would seem overly pedantic to many email users. Who needs a comma? Or a question mark?). Ten emails are not much more difficult to send than one (the dreaded "reply to all" has probably caused more heartburn than any other computer function). The anonymity of emails gives many people "keyboard courage", leading them to say nasty things in an email that they would never say face to face.

When I said earlier that I receive 50 to 100 emails a day, you might think I am a popular guy with an extensive network of correspondents. Unfortunately, a large percentage of the emails I receive fall into two categories: (i) copies of messages sent to groups I belong to and (ii) spam. I suspect the same is true for you.

The term spam refers to unsolicited emails sent in bulk, and it has contributed mightily to the burden email places on many of its users. By 2014, spam accounted for approximately 90% of all email traffic. On a typical day, an email user will receive many ads for products they do not want or use. If you purchase a product online, you will probably receive ads for similar products by the hundreds. 

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1's Ryan Tubridy show, Cynthia McCabe from the Washington Post on a spam email with a strange story

In the 2020 US presidential election, I made the mistake of donating a small amount to a couple of candidates I thought were worth supporting. To this day I will receive dozens of emails asking me to donate to other candidates or to the party I supported. Interestingly, I also get many emails from parties I did not support, likely on the theory that someone who is willing to give money to one candidate might change his or her mind in the future and donate to members of opposing parties. 

In the last year, I have received job offers, missives from Nigerian princes wanting to give me millions in funds if I would just advance them a few thousand today and offers to assume the editorship of journals I never knew existed. In academic publishing, the rise of predatory journals that will publish outright gibberish as long as you pay the page charges has become an increasing scandal. Of course, I have also received emails from beautiful women looking for a date.

People often hate email because it is overwhelming and unrelenting, but a few simple tricks can make your email life simpler and less stressful. Experiment with a schedule for checking email that works best for you. Some people set up their email accounts so that all their mail goes to their phone, which means you might end up checking email often and handle irrelevant emails by deleting them pretty much as they come in. This is annoying for many people, but it has the advantage that emails do not pile up in a way that looks overwhelming. 

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1's This Week, employment lawyer Richard Grogan discusses possible new laws that would give workers the legal right to disconnect from work emails outside office hours

Other people check their email at set intervals, once a day or once a week.  This reduces the clamour, but the list of emails that need to be examined at the end of a day or a week can seem long and daunting. 

The most useful skill is in filtering the wheat from the chaff. Lots of emails offer me something (a job, an opportunity to make money) and the old adage that if it looks too good to be true, it probably isn’t true is a valuable tool for identifying junk mail and spam. Pay attention to the sender; emails from someone you have never heard of are probably not worth reading.

Finally, you can reduce the problem of unwanted and excessive emails by refusing to become part of the problem.  Send fewer, shorter emails and resist the urge to send copies to anyone who might be interested.  Be thoughtful in choosing who you email and why and try to keep in mind that their time is just as valuable as yours. The best email is often the one you do not send.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ