E-mail, incremental reading, creativity, and time-management

Piotr Wozniak, Fall 2004

New article by Dr. Piotr Wozniak: The true history of spaced repetition

E-mail offers new ways of employing incremental reading in creative communication and remote brainstorming. This article presents a short overview of benefits and disadvantages of using e-mail in communication with the view to maximizing the creativity/time ratio.

E-mail changes the world. What took months in 18th century, takes seconds today. What took a couple of dollars and precious time needed for telephone synchronization in the early 1990s, today, most people in industrialized world can replace with a few clicks of the mouse. Yet there are many people who hate e-mail. They hate spam, and their overflowing Inboxes. The ever-growing queue of unanswered messages poses an unbearable mental burden. Others prefer instant messaging, one-on-one chat, group chats, or Internet telephony.

There seems to be a war going on between those who see "instant feedback" as the way of the future, while others insist "asynchronous communication" is superior. Although instant communication delivers speed, it also feeds on human weaknesses that adversely affect creativity and efficiency. This article argues for the importance and value of asynchronicity. 

Apart from delivering speed, instant communication is favored by majority of people for two basic reasons:

  • It feeds on a human weakness: the need for instant gratification. There used to be a substantial evolutionary benefit in encoding impatience, and compulsiveness in the human brain. We all like to get instant results and hate to be interrupted when doing things we find interesting.
  • Most people use communication to accomplish their goals often at the cost of other people's goals. They seek to instantly push their own agenda onto others. Asynchronous communication makes it difficult.

The main thesis of this article is: unless speed is of primary importance, asynchronous communication is vastly superior. For psychological reasons it is very difficult to channel most of your communications into e-mail. However, the cost-effectiveness of such a move is immense. Here is a short summary of pros and cons.

Benefits of e-mail

  • Asynchronous: No need to synchronize timing. No cross-Atlantic time-zones. No worry of waking the other party up or interrupting a family dinner. The timing of processing of different classes of messages can also be optimized for a number of criteria (e.g. maximum mental acuity, counteracting fatigue, apportioning stress, apportioning creative stimulation, etc.)
  • No disruption: A direct consequence of asynchronicity is that your mental work will not be disrupted. That might be the number one advantage of avoiding instant communication. Disruptive communication may ruin your creative work while your mind is constantly taken away from the problem in focus. It can also wreak havoc on your schedule. It is extremely easy to chat away time allocated for a creative activity. Some people are even able to chat the whole days away and wonder why so little work had been done. Naturally, this affects also those who regularly monitor their Inbox or turn on sound notifications to know when new mail arrives.    
  • Time limit: It is easy to impose a daily time-limit on mail processing. This is a vital time-management benefit. It is so much harder to impose limits on conversations and meetings.
  • Incremental reading: E-mail makes it possible to apply incremental reading with all its benefits. All of the following advantages are amplified with incremental reading: prioritization, creativity, memory consolidation, searchability, multiplicity of contacts and threads, and handling mail overflow.
  • Prioritization: You can prioritize the threads of discussion using solely your own criteria. The priorities are not imposed on you. You downgrade or ignore threads that are of less significance for you. It is you who determines the agenda, not the other parties on the line.
  • Creativity: Slow and incremental flow of ideas magnifies creativity. Ideas may be born very slowly. Yet they ultimately take far lesser cost per idea. The mechanism for this boost in creativity is exactly the same as in incremental reading
  • Memory consolidation: If you process mail incrementally with SuperMemo, you can easily minimize time necessary to ensure recall of vital pieces of information sent via e-mail. 
  • Remove negative emotion: E-mail makes it easier to remove the emotion factor. E-mail can make two meek individuals fire in anger. E-mail can easily be misinterpreted. Yet with a dose of training, it can be an effective de-emotifier. You can hide your emotional state. You can always remove all emotional threads and respond in emotion-free matter-of-fact manner.
  • Remove emotional pressure: People find it easier to tell the truth via e-mail. Difficult pieces can be mulled over and shaped in the least painful manner without affecting the core message. It is easier to refuse. It is easier to withstand a mental pressure imposed by others. It is easier to minimize the hurt to the other person's feelings while being unmoved in one's stand.
  • Multiple contacts: due to savings in time per contact, many more contacts can be handled
  • Multiple threads: due to savings in time per thread and improved memory consolidation, incremental reading makes it easy to handle many more threads of thought than in a conversation mode
  • Handling overflow: With SuperMemo, once you run out of the allocated time, you can Postpone the remaining mail-load along strictly defined criteria.
  • Archive: All messages can be searched in seconds. Many messages include promises (including your own). Those mini-contracts are easily recoverable from the archive.  

Disadvantages of e-mail

  • No fun: Fun of direct communication is lost. Adding fun to communication may not be cost effective, but its value can be immense for health, sociability and human contact. 
  • No immediate feedback: You know little of if your message has been received. Your curiosity as to the answer is not instantly satisfied.
  • Hard to judge emotional status: You know little of the emotional background to options sent via e-mail. A job interview would better be conducted face-to-face or via telephony. 
  • Slow flow of ideas: A brainstorming session that might take an hour (e.g. via Internet telephony), can drag for a month (even though it will ultimately take less total time per participant).
  • Skills required: Without necessary skills, benefits of e-mail are often lost. Some people simply do not like e-mail, and they may be lost to the cause of e-mail brainstorming.
  • Offence: Many people will take offence if you tell them you prefer to talk to them via e-mail.
  • Disadvantages of e-mail technology: No multi-mode communication, spam, mail worms, mail lost in transit, server mediation, privacy issues, security weaknesses, file size limitations, non-zero configuration cost, etc.

It all may sound quite inhuman and robotic. Yet the whole concept of time-management is grounded in maximizing your efficiency, maximizing the power of rational mind, while reducing the impact of human weaknesses.

If creativity is essential. If time-management is important. If deadlines are not pressing. If your typing skills are solid. Convert as much of your meetings and phone conferences to incremental e-mail communication. Once this becomes a habit, you will find it hard to return to the world of disruptive communication that offers a far lower benefit-to-cost ratio.

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