Email and the Lizard Brain

Using email is so common and simple that many wonder whether any special skills are necessary. Yet I notice that many of my email correspondents:

  • can’t be trusted to read and react to my email;
  • often steal my time and attention by unnecessary, long ,or poorly written messages;
  • don’t have time to do things other than email.

Many people spend most of their working time doing nothing else than ‘doing email’. When I consistently receive immediate answers to my messages, I start worrying : does my correspondent have anything else to do? Worse, I know that he would expect me to do the same: respond to his emails immediately.

The second bad habit is sending long, unnecessary and open-ended emails, especially cc’ed to many people. These send a clear message: “I wrote a long email because I could not bring myself to writing a short one. But I hope you will have time to read it anyway”. To put it short: “My time is more valuable than yours”. Thank you for being honest!

Finally, we all know people who ignore their email. They do not respond and, what’s more important, do not react. I have given up on many such people, often stopping to work with them altogether.

These mistakes are so widely recognized that Chris Anderson, the curator of TED proposed an email charter of 10 rules which anyone can subscribe online, and over 50,000 people have already done so. I really like some of these rules, for example:

  • (2) Short or Slow is not Rude; and
  • (4) Quash Open-Ended Questions

However, Lucy Kellaway, a Financial Times’ business columnist, whose podcast never fails to inspire and entertain me, thinks that these rules will never be implemented. Why? Here is what she writes:

Writing any old thing is always a lot easier than thinking first about what it is you are trying to say. Thinking lucidly is a painful process and is not something that anyone is going to start doing simply because they have signed up to a charter.

This is very right and can explain not only long emails but also other bad email habits. The problem which makes lucid thinking a painful process is called “the Lizard Brain”. The lizard brain is the amygdala, the oldest part of our brain which we share with lizards and other reptiles. It controls fear, rage and the reproductive instinct. According to Tim Dunne and Maggie Dugan, “the lizard brain’s reaction to everything, if it has one at all, is limited to the following eat, attack, run away, or mate”. These instincts help in a jungle but are useless in your Inbox.

The lizard brain floods us with excitement, fear, rage and other emotions when we open our email. What would people think of me if I don’t respond immediately?  (off goes an immediate half-baked message disrupting yours and others work!) Would thinking through this email require me to face unpleasant obligations or do something hard? (the message sits in your inbox forever!) Here is a chance to impress a lot of people with my snappy answer! (50 people are cc’ed). To write a short email I need to clarify what I want to say. What if I have nothing to say? (off goes a long open-ended email).

It’s not easy to battle the Lizard Brain. Lucy is right, no charters will ever help to deal with primeval instincts. Can something be done then? I believe it can.  Several Macademic posts share suggestions on how to outsmart and overpower the Lizard Brain when it comes to email.


About Aleh Cherp

Aleh Cherp is a professor at Central European University and Lund University. He researchers energy and environment and coordinates MESPOM, a Masters course operated by six Universities.
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3 Responses to Email and the Lizard Brain

  1. Pingback: Five rules for Email | Academic workflows on Mac

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  3. Pingback: Email wrap-up: habits, techniques and etiquette | Academic workflows on Mac

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