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The Answering of Emails, the Lack of Writing

I am the type of person who needs her email inbox mostly empty to focus on work.  I can’t sit down and write when there are unanswered emails piling up.  If we go on a trip, I have a digital folder where I place all messages I need to answer when I return just so my inbox can continue to look nice and neat while we’re away.  For me, a cluttered inbox = a cluttered mind.

Keeping that inbox neat steals from my work time, by which I mean my writing time.  I not only lose an hour in the morning writing people back, but my finger automatically flicks to my email while I’m working, and when I see new messages, I need to open them and read them and sometimes respond to them.  In turn, my writing brain feels jumbled, rushed.  Chopped up into tiny fragments of concentration.

Opinionator in the New York Times addressed this as I was debating whether or not to log off email and hide all electronic devices.  Wait, scratch that.  I know I should log off email and hide the electronic devices.  I know that I need to remove the capability of checking email because the temptation is always there.  I guess what I was debating is… can I?  Do I have the willpower to not check email for hours at a time?

The truthful answer is usually no.

My hopeful answer is, “of course!”

Opinionator said it perfectly:

It is this constant background awareness of email that can cause real problems. Unlike traditional mail, email is always active. You can’t fire off an email and then put it completely out of mind; there is at least some slight awareness of the message’s continuing life, the possibility of a reply, the need to keep refreshing the stream of digital correspondence. And that’s the best-case scenario — more often, it is the nagging collection of unanswered emails that weighs on one’s mind.

And they made me gulp with the final point that we pay for every word.  I mean, no, not literally.  But if I’m answering emails, I’m not writing.  And if I’m not writing, I’m not getting paid.  So getting a handle on the email situation is a financial concern.

I affixed a post-it note to the top of my desk which reads:

Minimize email while writing.  Set timer to check if need be.

It’s a little sad that I need to write such a duh reminder to myself; will I really forget to not check email and get down to the business of writing?  Yes.  Yes, I’ll purposefully forget since checking email is easy and writing is hard.

So if it takes me some time to return your email, I apologize.  I’m trying to get a better system in place; one that allows me to be prompt but not feel overwhelmed or that I’m detracting from work time.  I’m sure I’ll reach a balance, right?  Like around the time when they implant that computer chip under the skin so I can just think answers and my brain will automatically send out emails on my behalf.

I know people believe that the main reason why I seem to get nothing done is because I’m ruining my concentration playing Candy Crush.  And yes, that is true.  But the email situation isn’t helping.

How do you feel about your inbox?  Does a messy inbox stress you out and keep you from concentrating on whatever else you need to do?


1 Steadfast Warrior { 11.19.13 at 7:22 am }

I loathe organizing my inbox, but if I have a clear and simple system, it’s easier to maintain. But I’ve been lazy about it, so you don’t want to know how many are sitting in there. I reply to the ones I need to but just haven’t filed the others away (or even- gasp!- deleted ones I don’t need) in awhile.

But I encountered that same issue with always checking for a response and being distracted. My computer solved this issue for me… having active tabs with things that push content (email, Facebook, flash ads etc) causes my hard drive to run harder. So I now log out of my email. A pain in the butt sometimes but now I can just focus on what I was working on and not worry about the possibility that someone sent a reply. I’m working on setting specific times to check and reply to email as well. Now only if I could do that for Facebook…

2 tara { 11.19.13 at 8:52 am }

Wow- yes- I feel beholden to my inbox in ways that I never have before this year. My inbox is tied to all the aspects of my job so I’m really torn between doing my job online and in face … and what that really means is that I’m not alert to either… and that there’s too much to do. Too many emails to respond to, too many phone messages, too many students at the door, too many papers to grade, too many meetings, too many classes to prep for.. and I’m never off duty. Hello, overwork, my new abusive partner.

3 Papa Bradstein { 11.19.13 at 10:10 am }

Uh, are you sure we’re not twins who were separated at birth?

There’s lots of science that backs up what you/we feel about how email fragments your thoughts. It happens to all of us. There’s not such good science about how to avoid/resist the temptation, however.

4 a { 11.19.13 at 10:25 am }

Let me just take this opportunity to complain about the updates to email that Yahoo has just made. I hate them! I can no longer see my folders and this interferes with my system of reminders. I have a very hard time ignoring unread emails. Therefore, I file my bills that need to be paid unread in the Bills folder, so I will see that unread email every time I log in, and keep it in mind. Otherwise, I will forget to pay the bill – it’s either that unread email or a paper copy. I have to have one or the other. Now Yahoo hides my folder and I can’t see what’s pending. Aaaah!!!!

I rarely get email that requires a response, so this doesn’t generally bother me, actually.

5 Catwoman73 { 11.19.13 at 10:45 am }

My e-mail inbox is a NIGHTMARE. Over the years, I have subscribed to about a million newsletters that I am no longer interested in. But I am too lazy to unsubscribe to all of them. Or rather- the thought of it is too overwhelming. So I typically just scan my e-mail quickly for relevent stuff, and ignore the rest. I have over 8000 messages in my inbox right now.

You’re having a panic attack after hearing that, aren’t you? 😉

6 deathstar { 11.19.13 at 11:33 am }

I’ve got about 5,000 items in my Gmail. Sometimes this is handy when I need to find something from 2006. Mostly not. Periodically I purge and delete but I can’t keep up. I do have folders for things I want to keep for various reasons. This is useful. Lately I’ve been letting emails slide because I’m so busy being pulled in different directions, that I will often not reply to ones that require deep thought. If I reply too quickly, I end up writing things don’t make sense or contain complete sentences. Mostly I keep things as visual reminders of some time limited offer or event or deal.

By the way, I do appreciate you or anyone replying to me at all on blogs. It’s like, “Hey, girl, I heard you.”

7 nonsequiturchica { 11.19.13 at 12:02 pm }

I can’t deal with unread messages in my email- either at work or at home. But I will forget to respond to a message if I read it and don’t click on “mark unread.” So I am rather inefficient (mostly with my home email) at times, but it also annoys me enough that I respond or get whatever I need done so that I can once again have a “clean” email inbox.

8 loribeth { 11.19.13 at 12:38 pm }

Even when it’s really, really busy at the office — maybe ESPECIALLY when it’s really, really busy — I find I have to take a half hour every day or so & just file & delete e-mails that I don’t need to respond to/have already responded to/etc. etc. At this time of year in particular, it’s very easy to become overwhelmed & lose track of stuff. I have project folders set up & then subfolders, and I have thousands of saved e-mails going back several years (and yes, I can usually find what I need pretty fast — & they have saved my butt on more than one occasion).

I’m not quite as fussy about my inbox at home, & don’t go through it as often — but then the e-mails there are rarely as critical.

9 Lori Lavender Luz { 11.19.13 at 3:03 pm }

For me, too, a cluttered inbox = a cluttered mind.

I am going to step away from my emailbox now and get some other work done.

(It’s in pretty good shape at the moment.)

10 Turia { 11.19.13 at 3:35 pm }

I have to be very rigid with myself when it comes to e-mail and other online distractions (facebook/feedly, etc.), since my work is almost always done on the computer. I set strict time rules (e.g., work for an hour and then ten minutes to check e-mail) and try to adhere to them (I don’t always succeed).

The big thing that has made a difference is logging my work hours BEFORE I even open e-mail or anything else in the morning. I often only get to my e-mail in the evenings, but it rarely transpires that by taking so long to look at it I’ve actually caused a problem (and that is another rant: how we’re all expected to be constantly checking our e-mail and responding immediately- my husband once had an e-mail conversation where one of the three involved wondered in an e-mail why my hsuband hadn’t yet responded. The e-mail conversation started at 8 that morning, and the astonishment that my husband hadn’t yet replied was sent at 4 that afternoon.)

My sister uses a program that progressively blocks your access to a website for longer and longer each time you try to click over to it (so the first time it won’t load the website for thirty seconds, the next time it’s a minute, the third time, five minutes, etc.). It works because pretty soon it’s taking so long you just give up and get back to work. She uses it mainly because she recognizes how easy it is to have ‘just five minutes’ turn into fifteen or thirty, and then you’ve completely disrupted your train of thought as well as lost time. I could find out its name if you wanted?

I always appreciate the e-mails you send, but I recognize that your e-mail demands are probably a full order of magnitude greater than mine.

11 Ana { 11.21.13 at 12:43 pm }

You are in my head. I’m so unfathomably proud of an empty inbox, and all the waiting messages drain my energy (or my soul…). Off to get a post-it note to stick on my computer.

12 Justine { 11.21.13 at 1:23 pm }

Does this explain why I don’t write any more?

No, no it doesn’t. 😉

13 Ana { 11.21.13 at 2:11 pm }

You have to read this:

“At the end of your life, no one’s going to talk about your pristine inbox”
THIS is what we need on our post-its.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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