When did we start giving e-mail so much power


I was in college when e-mail first started to become a method of communication available to any person who could get on the internet super highway.

Four years later, "in the year 2000",  I started work as a graduate assistant when I began my graduate school education.  As a manger of several groups of people, I used e-mail as my primary method of communication.  Looking back, I don't remember e-mail being used to voice gripes and grievances, probably because I would see them in person that week and it would be awkward for them.  

In 2004, ten years ago, I worked for a non-profit membership corporation.  I was the liaison to several committees which met in person once a year, otherwise, we did all the work by conference calls, e-mail or individual phone calls.  

I remember losing sleep about not responding to a customer or committee member's e-mail to me the same day I received it.  There was, however, no way for me to get through 100 e-mails a day and also get work done.  I tried to prioritize who I responded to, and in what order, by using a colored flag system - red meaning a reply is urgent.

I got to inbox 0 before I went on maternity leave; lo and behold, I discovered many red flag e-mails taken captive by the 6-month automatic archive system.  This was a sign to me that urgency to an e-mail was my own perception.  My initial perception was to respond immediately or as soon as possible at the time I received it and most e-mails, at the time of receipt, held high importance.

I had a three-year hiatus from e-mail when I started law school.  When I opened my practice in 2013, I had a chance to take a look at e-mail with fresh eyes and start with inbox 0.

It didn't take more than a few months before I started losing sleep over e-mail.  I have posted on several approaches to e-mail on this blog; when I stray from my self-imposed boundaries, the stress can be stomach-turning.

For example, I sent an update, by e-mail to an individual for whom I researched a legal issue, pro bono.  I didn't ask for a reply, but I got a follow-up question.  I should have expected it, but I reacted to it instead.  Not by replying to the e-mail, but by getting worked up about whether or not to reply; (1) if I don't reply it will look like I'm careless with customer service; (2) if I do reply, I'm allowing my own boundaries to be blurred and opening the door to a slew of questions equaling more unbillable time than I allowed myself; and (3) if I don't reply with something I'm afraid I'll get a follow-up e-mail that may or may not be pleasant.  

It was a one sentence reply.  And I have spent the better part of 30 cumulative minutes contemplating what to do. 

When did I start giving e-mail so much power?

I also, had a complaint come by e-mail.  My first one in over a year of practice so it should have been expected.  But it was still painful to read; having my professional skills slashed to bits.  I could feel my blood pressure rise as a read it.  It was a personal attack on me.  I stepped away from it for 24 hours and have since filed it away.  But it will always be an imprint on my mind and on my heart.  

I still have to address the issue but it is now on my own timeline, refusing to give power to the harsh e-mail.  I wanted to defend myself and provide explanations for each grievance, but that won't change the situation and it probably won't help me feel better because my remarks will fall on deaf ears. 

When did I start giving e-mail so much power?

Filing grievances by e-mail is like having a showdown with only one person showing up at a time.   

The options I am going to give myself are (1) walk away and let the problem be ground into the dust to be forgotten with time or (2) find a way to pull the other person into the showdown and instead of guns use a table and 2 chairs.

If we allow e-mail to dictate what we think about in our spare time, we lose.

If we allow e-mail to control our priorities while we are at work, we lose.

The solution is to find a way to take the power away from e-mail.  We are the ones who gave it the power in the first place.