Email is a magnificent tool. I’m old enough to remember when it wasn’t universal. I learned to report by — this might seem crazy — calling people. Even the first time you wanted to speak to the person! You had to pick up the phone, call, and explain what you wanted. We might wax nostalgic about the interpersonal skills this taught, but I know the tendency was to call people who were willing to be called, because I’d called them and been through their various gatekeepers before.
Email opened all of this up.
It also creates time stress. People have different ideas of what is a reasonable time frame in which to return an email, but there’s good evidence that the window in which the majority of people would expect a reply is shrinking. And why not? The person emailing you knows as well as you do that you have your phone — with its little inbox icon — on you at all times. Outside of a few situations, if you haven’t responded, it’s because you’re choosing to do other things rather than respond.
To which I say: Yes! Excessive inbox counts just provide more evidence that we are always disappointing someone. Maybe at one point this wasn’t so obvious. But now it is.
Or as Juliet says in Juliet’s School of Possibilities: Expectations are infinite. Time is finite. You are always choosing. Choose well.
Maybe this constant disappointment sounds bleak, but it can also be liberating. Time, at least for those whose lives involve a lot of email, as opposed to walking 10 miles daily to fetch dirty well water, is mostly a choice. If we’re always disappointing someone, we want to make sure we’re making wise choices about who we disappoint. I’d argue that making someone who’d like a reply, but doesn’t urgently need one, wait 24 (or 48, or 72) hours is often a better choice than crowding out space for the work (including unpaid work) that brings joy and meaning to your life.
I’d argue this. I also know it’s hard to do in practice. Thanks to how I’ve organized my various incoming stuff, I now have four inboxes (kind of a long story, and yes, it’s me looking at them — I’ve gotten some funny emails starting “Hey guys, could you please pass this along to Laura?” Um, this isn’t that big an operation!) I have also, at various points in the last month of launching a book, a podcast, and continuing my speech-giving, article-writing life that involves four kids, felt like my to-do list is robust.
Every day, I’m tempted to clear out the inboxes first. Why? It’s straightforward. Delete the stuff I don’t need. Forward other stuff. Many things require quick answers. Some require longer ones, but it’s often interesting to engage with people. Very complicated responses can be scheduled for another time, but then at least I know there is a time. I make progress quickly. Who knows if I’ve achieved my big goals, but I’ve definitely gotten down from 100 unread messages to 50! If people have bothered to write me, often nice things, it’s emotionally satisfying to respond. I like to get that satisfaction sooner rather than later.
But…I also know that email expands to fill the available space. Email will always be with me. The question is whether I will ever do anything else. Whether I devote my morning to high value work or not, I’ll still be behind on email. So better to be behind and do the work, than be behind and not do the work. Choose well.
So this morning, I started answering a few things, then realized I needed to stop and write an article I had been putting off. I finished a draft. This afternoon I will go through the inboxes. If I’d spent the morning in my inbox, I wouldn’t have a draft. And that would make me feel even more behind.
Photo: These flowers are prettier than my inbox(es)