“The tail wagging the dog” is a good description of modern work for a lot of people, where the left hand usually has no idea what the right hand is doing and project objectives are hideously unclear.
Much of that problem comes from an over-focus on “reaction” — as Carter Cast notes here — and a corresponding under-focus on “response,” meaning that you spend more time chasing tails and responding to pings than actually doing shit that matters.
That’s where work falls apart for a lot of people — that’s why we call it “chimp rape” — because even if they understand their job role and priorities, which is sadly not even that common, they have to spend so much of their day trying to deliver on someone else’s agenda. That’s all email really is.
Let me hit you with another one from Mr. Cast at Northwestern:
This quote is flawed because, again, many people have no idea what tasks would “move the needle.” The stuff that would “move the needle” is only known by executives, who cling to information up a chain because they desperately need to feel relevant as disruption is blowing shit up all around them.
But this is the other flaw of email: I’ve seen legitimately high middle managers get emails from peons and stop everything to deal with it simply because it pinged. That’s preposterous, but it happens more than we admit. (The opposite, i.e. completely ignoring an email, happens a lot too.)
Work needs to be driven by priority in order to matter/be successful. Your inbox usually isn’t what actually matters — again, it’s what matters to other people and they’re trying to dump on your plate.
Back in my Virtuoso days (that’s the name of a company), we used to call that “turds over the fence” or “TOTF.” That’s a great description of email in general — stuff flies in largely because someone else wants to drop a deuce on your plate so they can surf Amazon for 13 more minutes. This is why respect in the workplace is in the toilet, and trust ain’t too far behind. Managers hide behind platforms (i.e. emails) and lazy co-workers use email to get out of doing stuff and hope you do it.
Work is designed all wrong, and we typically just don’t admit that and go on our merry way of checking email, treating everything under the sun as urgent (thus changing the definition of the word), and hoping we don’t get crap-canned when revenue erodes. A great way to spend the middle 40 years of your life, naw mean?
TL:DR — Don’t treat your inbox as gospel. It’s the gospel of others, not you. Get your priorities right.