On Email, Powerlessness, and Maintaining Sanity in a Pathologically Plugged-In World
March 02, 2018 | Filed in: Your Brain
When I was growing up, I yearned for a cell phone, though I wasn’t allowed to have one until after high school. That first flip phone, acquired when I was a college freshman in the mid-2000s, felt like more of a signifier of freedom than learning how to drive. During those envious, phone-less years, my more technologically-privileged friends were objects of bewildered curiosity. I still remember the ringtone for my best friend’s silver Motorola (with an antenna!)—”Heartbreaker” by Pat Benatar—and another friend, whose mother was constantly leveraging her phone as an incentive for good behavior, wailing at the prospect of it being taken away one day, “But what if I get texts?!”
After joining the ranks of cell phone owners in college, I fell into a few common traps: I coveted a pink Motorola Razr, bought a Blackberry (more than once), and once signed up for a T-Mobile contract after getting strong-armed at a mall kiosk. But it wasn’t until I entered the working world that I discovered what I and my text-obsessed friends had been training for, unwittingly, all those years: email.
So. Much. Email.
Here’s what refreshing my email inbox feels like to me these days:
- A shot of pure cortisol
- A periodic reminder, as my inbox refills every hour, that I will never accomplish everything that I want to in life and will inevitably die with at least some dreams unfulfilled
- An indictment from the Productivity Gods for failing to get up earlier, follow up more quickly, check more boxes off my to-do list
And that’s just the good email. I once had a boss once who would put “C ME” in a subject line with no accompanying message whenever he wanted me to come, terrified, into his office. Another would add and drop contacts from chains willy-nilly, leading me to create a system where I would double- and triple-check an email to make sure no clients were accidentally cc’d, recall it using “Undo Send” to check it again, and then finally release it into the ether, feeling uneasy for the rest of the day.
Of course, email isn’t just a tyrant. It’s a seducer. It is, hands down, the best way to feel emptily productive; the donut of working life. I’ve lost count of the times at various jobs when I drifted into a fugue state of responding to emails all day, looping people in and out, following up and circling back, in an endless Lazy River of communication. Technically, I was working. But was there much of a purpose to it all, except to generate more email?
As I progressed in my career, the volume of email only increased, and my stress level went up along with it. So I did what any normal woman would: I went to war.
The Definition of Email War:
The art of employing various tactics to defend one’s inbox, under the premise that it is possible to “win” (Inbox Zero) and crush your enemies (ruin other people’s Inbox Zero). Tactics include:
- Guerrilla Attacks: Getting up early in the morning to lob emails back at people when they are sleeping and thus can’t lob them back at you.
- Calling in Reinforcements: Adding someone to a chain (“Looping in Janet for more background on this partnership”) to redirect the conversation away from yourself.
- The Blitz: Filing non-urgent emails into folders, and then answering them all in a flurry on a single weekend afternoon.
- Ruse de Guerre: Checking your inbox and replying to emails before you go to sleep and immediately upon waking to create the impression among your coworkers that you are omnipresent (and don’t sleep).
These tactics are effective, to a point. Some days I would leave the office feeling exhilarated, like I had ascended to the top of the metaphorical email mountain and planted my victory flag. But by the next morning, I had toppled off the pile under a fresh crop of messages. Eventually, I began to feel like I was actually at war—tired, stressed, assuming the worst of everyone. And I realized that I wasn’t struggling with email, but rather with a feeling of powerlessness.
Turns out, I’m not alone. When I sat down to write this piece, I reached out to an expert: Devorah Heitner, Ph.D. and author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in a Digital World. Her work focuses on raising the next generation of digital natives—kids who will grow up in a world where smartphones (to say nothing of email) have always existed. And the next generation of workers is already being trained for constant communication.
“What we find is that kids get devices and then feel pressure to be accessible at all times,” Heitner says. “And what I saw teaching college was that many of my students forget that I’m a human being that goes to sleep.”
“Let’s say an assignment is due on Monday, and they’ve known about it for six weeks. Sunday evening into Monday morning, they’re emailing me at 1am, 2am, 3am. Well, their professor is not waiting by her inbox at those times. So it does a lot to undermine that relationship and the trust at the heart of it.”
Yikes—although I do have to tip my metaphorical hat to the wily teens in Heitner’s example, as one soldier on the email battlefield acknowledges another.
As much as I would like to overhaul the entire working world to be less dependent on email, that’s impossible to do alone. But what is possible is to address the feeling of helplessness that huge volumes of email can engender.
“A lot of experts believe that you need to be able to delay things coming into your inbox when you’re working,” Heitner says. “When I was writing my most recent book, I would turn off the Wi-Fi for a few hours every morning, work until I had achieved a certain word count, and then turn it back on.”
Sure, I thought initially upon hearing that advice. Easy for someone not working in an office to do. But it also made me think about how I have a choice in all of this, too. I can’t be at everyone’s beck and call and still get my work done, even though that’s anathema for someone who lives for productivity. And besides, wouldn’t I feel much better psychologically if, each time I logged on, I wasn’t resuming a one-sided war?
So I’ve started closing my email tab, full stop, for most of the day on weekdays, and hardly checking at all on weekends. Yes, messages continue to come in, but there’s no reason to watch them pile up, helplessly, as I go about my work. And I noticed that when I started only engaging with email when I had carved out time specifically for that purpose (also a Heitner suggestion), I felt much calmer—even if the volume of messages remained the same.
Heitner hopes we can pass on a similar philosophy to the next generation. “If our kids see that we can unplug, at least some of the time, even if we’re the CEO or we have a team under us, then they’ll be able to unplug themselves some of the time,” she said. “And they’ll see that it’s okay to be disconnected a little bit of the time, and life will go along without you.”
As with so many other things in life (ask my therapist), email was never really the problem. I had to disabuse myself of the notion that the secret to email was getting up earlier, or using different applications, or coming up with a new sorting system, and accept that my inbox will never be empty. My to-do list will never be done. There will always be someone I should get back to. And approaching email with a spirit of generosity, rather than as a ruthless general determined to bend everyone to my will, helps a lot. It even makes me hopeful that, some day, the collective email arms race will end.
“There’s so much that we can do as leaders in the workforce to reduce the volume of email,” Heitner said. “Even just thinking every time you email someone, ‘Do I really need to email them? Could I get this information another way?’ goes a long way. You are making a demand on someone’s time when you email them. It’s worth thinking about that before you even start.”
So, as I prepare for Monday, I’m trying my best not to think about what might be waiting for me in the morning. I invite you to consider times when you may have, unwittingly, waged email war on someone else, in the hope that next time perhaps you’ll think twice. And I wish you all a peaceful inbox as you start your week.
Just don’t email me about it.
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