Writing and email stuff

So this week I sent off to the editor Chapter 5 of my forthcoming book on organizational health and started to plan out Chapter 6 which is on healthy technologies. (The book is coming out in December this year).

People ask me how I write. By this they seem to mean what is the process I go through to get words on a page. Do I plan things out? Do I just begin? How do I know what I want to say? The answer is that I have a rough idea of what I want to say – it feels rather like a lump of clay that I put on a potter's wheel with the idea that I will make a vase. Then as I begin turning the words something completely different emerges. I have the ability to knock it down and start again or shape it differently. And this is how I began Chapter 6. I know I want to write about healthy technologies – but what specifically?

Part of my writing process is that once I have roughed out the book contents I then open a folder for each chapter and put into the folder any articles I come across that I think will be relevant to that chapter. Additionally I boldly open a word document with the chapter number and title and just drop into it anything that could be useful when I come to writing that chapter. Thus in determining to begin actually writing Chapter 6 I looked through the articles I had for it, and at the random stuff in my Chapter 6 word document.

One of the random items was a piece that read "workers distracted by phone calls, emails, and text messages, suffer a greater loss of IQ than a person smoking marijuana." This I'd got from the notes section of a book, Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar, that came free with The Observer, a UK Sunday newspaper on January 29 2012. and I thought it would be a good introduction to the chapter.

It had a website link attached to the quote, and because I invariably look for the source of the quotes I looked up the link. In this I found reference to Dr. Glenn Wilson, a psychiatrist at King's College London University, who had apparently done the research so I looked him up to see if I could find the original work. What I found was a nice piece by him saying "This study was widely misrepresented in the media", and giving the reasons why. The upshot of this digging around – which took a good 30 minutes was that I had to start again with my chapter opening since I don't want to give credence to something that isn't the case.

Thus I turned to the articles in my Chapter 6 folder and found one by Lucy Kellaway, a Financial Times columnist, You've got mail but you need to get your life back . This looked promising and I started down the road of investigating the source of her article. She mentioned TED Conferences, Chris Anderson so I looked him up. Yes, indeed he has created an email charter, "in response to widespread acknowledgement that email is getting out of hand for many people". It started out as a blog post which then metamorphosed in a three part thing: The problem, the solution and the charter itself which is actually on the home page so you read the charter before the problem and the solution. However, the charter makes some sense and readers are asked to sign it and share it – though I'm not totally clear what happens after that. Maybe a flood of emails from the charter originators? Click on their link "Join our Mailing List".

Right – so now I have the possibility of working up something about email health so I read more of the Chris Anderson stuff and find out:

"If you're not careful, it [email] can gobble up most of your working week. Then you've become a reactive robot responding to other people's requests, instead of a proactive agent addressing your own true priorities. This is not good.

This phenomenon can be thought of as a potent modern tragedy of the commons. The commons in question here is the world's pool of attention. Email makes it just a little too easy to grab a piece of that attention."

At this point, instead of starting to write the chapter my attention is grabbed by the hyperlink to 'tragedy of the commons' and I can't resist going to that to find out more. Within seconds I find myself reading the "influential article titled "The Tragedy of the Commons", written by ecologist Garrett Hardin and first published in the journal Science in 1968." This is not good either. I am supposed to be writing a chapter.

I pause to reflect on what I'm doing, or in this case not doing. I've found that one of the characteristics of my scheduled writing time is that much of it is spent on a) locating the primary source of stuff that looks interesting and b) then getting sidetracked by all the bits and bobs that this first activity puts in my path. But I rationalize in this instance by thinking that maybe the Garrett Hardin article (now in my articles folder) will come in handy someday if only I can remember it is there.

I haul myself back to reflect on healthy use of email. What's helpful to me in thinking about the chapter is that Anderson and his co-creators of the charter make the point that email overload is stressful, and they don't mean the healthy stress but the unhealthy " how am I supposed to deal with this?" kind of stress. And to relieve my own stress at the thought of tackling the work emails that have built up while I've been traveling the last few days I go back and read the comments on the Email Charter which made me laugh a lot. (Laugher is a stress reliever, as you may know).

To spend less time on email (thus reducing stress) was the suggestion that you can/should be terse in your responses – which is my style anyway, so now I can justify it. There's even the idea that people put a link in their signature block with one of two tag-lines: Save our in-boxes! http://emailcharter.org or Too brief? Here's why! http://emailcharter.org.

So now I've done enough background research on email stress to give me some ideas and I'm going to start writing the chapter. But, oh, I've just remembered a good quote for the next time someone asks me about how I write: "Writing Is Easy; You Just Open a Vein and Bleed" I wonder where that came from? Maybe I'll look it up. It won't take a minute.