Why Email Isn’t Work. (And Why It Is.)

It’s an age-old question. And one even our forefathers puzzled over.

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Are those emails you spend hours writing each day really work, or are they a horrific distraction from the real work you need to get done?

Here are two perspectives. Amazingly, I believe both.

No, Emailing is Not Work

This theory goes like this: real work is creation-based. Real work leads to tangible results. Real work launches products, writes books, records songs. Real work is when you push away the distractions, buckle down, and get something created at the end.

Email is nothing like this.

Instead, email is a nightmarish hamster wheel in which you are never done. As my friend Jon Acuff likes to joke, can you ever be done with the Internet? Do you ever log off and say, “Yup! I finished the Internet today!”

In a word? No.

Same thing goes for email.

You will never be done with email. Someone will always want to ask you to do something. Someone will always want you to respond about something. Someone will always be there. In your inbox. Waiting for you to respond in a timely manner. (For more on when you should respond, see this piece.)

Yes, Emails are Work

This perspective doesn’t poke holes at the other side of things, but rather takes a different tack. In this theory, you admit that yes – emailing sucks, emailing is a never-ending hamster wheel of madness, emailing does not lead to creation, and emailing is a something you will never be “done” with.

But, it argues that the reality is that emailing is necessary to our jobs. We need to email to succeed in our careers. We are expected to email with clients, partners, and coworkers. We are also expected to do so in a timely manner.

Do we like it? No. But it’s the reality.

And thus, that means email is work. That means that email is not something that can just be “fit in” at the end of the day around “real” work. Instead, it means that we need to acknowledge the hours we must spend emailing each week and make those part of our expected work.

So, when you say you “didn’t work” over the weekend when in reality you spent 4 hours emailing, you actually didn’t take a break. You did work. You emailed. 

So there you have it. Two wildly different perspectives on the reality of the time we spend emailing.

So what do you think? Is email work? Or not?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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24 thoughts on “Why Email Isn’t Work. (And Why It Is.)

  1. What’s Taking place i’m new to this, I stumbled upon this I’ve discovered It positively helpful and it has aided me
    out loads. I’m hoping to contribute & aid different users like its aided me.
    Good job.

  2. Thank you Claire to drive us to think and discuss practical themes. Allow us improve professional performance and personal growth. I believe in both perspectives too. Anyway I´d prefer second perspective looking inside medium and big organizations. How email can be a powerful labour productivity tool? And it does things happen! It can move all organization towards right goals
    too…Why? If we talk about leadership functions and if we email after an
    important meeting and decisions, it can be very useful. So after it, if we email all participants describing what´s been decided, peoples´s activities and tasks, expected outputs and
    deadlines is very important (I mean some countries and work culture of course). It is a powerful tool to became a meeting much more effective because people understand email actually as a formal commitment or an official agreement. If we email right text and in the right way (it
    increases personal and teams responsability). And saves lots of time
    because my assistant does not call everytime to ask the same things or
    waste time in follow up some kind of easy and basic activities. Anyway, yes maybe
    I am an email lover :)… A note to say this is just a very particular and personal
    opinion based in my past experience only in some teams, companies and
    countries. All the Best!

  3. Email is part of work only. Email is nothing but communication between organisation and between clients as well. In my experience in Project management I learnt that communication is the most critical part in project success. Thank you for this brainstorming! Kind Regards, Sunil

  4. This was a very “liberating” post for me. It helped affirm that email communication is work. I’m a pastor and feel like the words that I write in any given “bulk email,” or a one-on-one reply, have to be given careful attention. I often have my wife proof my emails for technical and content dynamics. I often need to reply to double digit texts in a day which I also feel like takes time to think through, consider “tone,” and making sure things are responded to in a timely manner so the person doesn’t feel like their being slighted or that their not “important” enough. Thank you for showing us both sides of the coin, Claire!

  5. Oh but Claire, emails can sooooo take over! I would love input as to how to schedule emails so they don’t take up my whole day (which they tend to do because my emails require long answers to readers’ questions) so how would you or your other readers recommend to keep my time at emails to a minimum? Help please! I LOVE how you said that work is “creation” based….the prob is, I get so many emails, I don’t schedule time to create….so in a word, HELP.

  6. We discuss this frequently within my group at work. My take is that email is essentially a tool to accomplish other work but it is not work in and of itself. You can certainly spend hours being a “first responder” on the hampster wheel of email but that doesn’t necessarily equate to work. Used as a tool to communicate and send information, it improves the efficiency of your true work.

    • Although the argument can be made that if much of your job is relationship management with partners, emails replace many phone calls…

  7. Ms Claire, you are the bestest keeper up with kat I’ve ever seen! You make sense about everything and keep it simple and tell us what to do to become successful at what drives us. I am in my learning phase and I thank you for all of your guidance. Within 6 months or so I will be out there in cyberspace pedaling my plethora of true investigative stories out of the 1950’s Memphis music scene. My story is best splained on Music Youtube…… search: possible lost elvis tapes the first story is it, PeaJayMusicBlog. When you watch the Fox 4 Dallas news show, don’t feel sorry for ol’ Steve. It IS him, in my “not so professional yet opinion”. Bias? Yes of course. But when you truly know something, it is harder for THEM to run you down a rabbit trail of misinformation and misdirection. The reason for all the misdirection is to throw me off the trail of the Memphis truth. I’ve seen the edge of the pile of Memphis dirty laundry. (There) is the story, “We Love Dirty Laundry”. Sometimes it is best to let sleeping Memphis dogs lie. Lie, hmm, let em lie, that IS what they have done for years. Let’s rip the lid off of this massive Memphis mystery! Ok, I ramble… thank you Ms Claire. All of your words are covered in and are seeds of encouragement.

  8. Hi Claire,

    I am serving a tech startup as Business development and Marketing manager. Yes, E mails are constitutes a large chunk of my day, rather, its just emails and calls. I do strategize, make sop’s and follow up with clients and colleagues, but seeing over 100 mails per day is a part of mundane schedule.

  9. When I am at work, email is work and if used right provides me and my crew a lot of work – in the past I would have been on the phone and fax all the time, so if email isn’t work then using the phone and fax machine isn’t work as well?
    Now if I am at home on my own time, then email isn’t work. 🙂

  10. I liken email to conversations. Conversations can be used to create possibilities, whether that be in a work or social context. In my opinion the problem is not email but how we respond to it. If we schedule and prioritize it then it becomes a productive tool that bridges continents and time zones. If we reactively respond to it (which I do unfortunately as I hate a cluttered inbox!) then it becomes more of an interruption, rather like the person who keeps asking questions during a presentation.

  11. I love this. I lean towards the side that it is work. If you have to read, think, respond, organize, prioritize, etc. with something sent to you, then it’s work. Now, if you really enjoy your work, that’s fine. But don’t pretend you’re taking time off if you are doing email, ever five minutes, while pulling the phone out of your pocket. 🙂

    I wonder how this applies to those who do social media for a living?

  12. In my line of business, email IS part of my actual work. As a project management and implementation consultant, emailing is an essential part of the service I provide- I am communicating my findings, highlighting issues and options, etc. I may do configuration or testing within, say, a timekeeping system, but then I need to communicate the results- which I do via email. So for me, email is not tangential to my work- it is an integral part of it.

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