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Dealing with the Digital Deluge

One great thing about science today is that it’s more social than ever. We’re no longer exclusively on the bench, isolated with our work.

by Mark Lanfear
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One great thing about science today is that it’s more social than ever. We’re no longer exclusively on the bench, isolated with our work. We’re working together across countries, across continents, and even across specialized social networks as the ivory towers dissolve and we recognize the benefits of collaborating on important research. In many ways this new frontier in collaboration isn’t just convenient—it’s also necessary. The business of science, after all, has changed, and chances are, whether you work in a small lab or the lab of a multinational corporation, budget constraints are dictating the need to pool resources.

Of course, there have been consequences of this kind of connectivity in the lab and other scientific workplaces, just as there have been consequences across all industries. Things such as email and other electronic forms of communication have become so easy and “convenient” that they seem to be everywhere, all the time. It’s been called the “digital deluge” in various media reports, that constant ping of an incoming email that threatens to fracture our workday. Email has even become the subject of research itself as our modern society has begun to recognize its omnipresence in our lives.

The Radicati Group, a technology market research firm in California, for example, has projected that by the year 2015, there will be close to 4.1 billion individual email accounts around the world. The number of corporate email accounts (i.e., the email we all use at work) is expected to grow much faster than consumer email accounts. And those of us using corporate email at work can expect to receive at least 105 emails a day. Yes, 105 emails a day.

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The age of the smartphone is only helping fuel the email beast, making it easier than ever to connect wirelessly and literally never to be without electronic communication. Radicati projects that there will be more than 1.2 billion wireless email users by 2015.

Of course, certain emails may very well be critical to your workday. But then again, many emails can be put off for another time. Some may have nothing to do with the task at hand. A majority may have nothing to do with your work at all. And research has already shown that this kind of electronic “overload” can actually hinder productivity as much as it enhances it. A 2012 study from the University of California at Irvine also suggests that constantly looking at email increases stress and that those who take a vacation from email usually experience decreased stress levels.

It all just means that scientists in labs—once considered isolated and content to work alone—must start to deal with email overload like everyone else, especially in an age when communication with remote colleagues can’t necessarily be avoided.

Technology firms have actually been doing this for several years now, continually looking for innovative ways to help email users deal with the beast that the technology firms created. There are flags, filters, and priority statuses that we can employ with our email accounts. There are options to turn off notifications. But unfortunately, there are no options to turn off email altogether. If you don’t deal with it at some point, it keeps piling up, threatening to become a bigger problem down the road.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with the digital deluge, of course. But there are some pretty effective, straightforward ways to make sure email doesn’t take over your work life. First of all, we’ve probably all become used to dealing with electronic messages the instant they happen. But you don’t have to do that! Turning off the email alerts function is a good way to start weaning yourself from this habit. Then, try setting aside a certain time each day to deal with email, and keep on schedule. Next, get to know all the bells and whistles of the email program that you use, because there really are some great ways to manage your inbox that you may not be aware of. This could help you prioritize email from certain people—and may help you avoid other unimportant emails altogether. Another tip is to work on the best communication possible when writing emails, because often our time is used up answering and clarifying prior emails that may not have been effective the first time around.

No one will argue that electronic communication in our modern workplace hasn’t indeed revolutionized and enhanced our jobs. But know that when it’s used effectively—when we’re able to deal with the digital deluge—it can become an even more powerful and much more manageable tool.