I rarely find the inspiration to write anymore. I could blame this void on a number of things: being soooooo busy, working a lot, tiredness, even laziness. But if I want to be honest, I can attribute my lack of dedication to one culprit: the almighty e-mail.
I spend so much of my day crafting delicately worded emails and responding to e-mail chains that when it comes time to use my right brain to actually write something meaningful, I feel as if I’ve exhausted all my writerly juice on my outbox.
In fact, I’ve noticed a significant decrease in my own curiosity about creative endeavors: design, art, clothing and of course, the written word not in the context of electronic mail. I also find myself jotting down “brilliant” (read: usually terrible) ideas much less than I used to. Why is this?
Author and blogger Steven Johnson has an inkling:
…most good ideas (whether they’re ideas for narrative structure, a particular twist in the argument, or a broader topic) come into our minds as hunches: small fragments of a larger idea, hints and intimations. Many of these ideas sit around for months or years before they coalesce into something useful, often by colliding with another hunch.
The problem with hunches is that it’s incredibly easy to forget them, precisely because they’re not fully-baked ideas. You’re reading an article, and a little spark of an idea pops into your head, but by the time you’ve finished the article, you’re checking your email, or responding to some urgent request from your colleague, and the next thing you know, you’ve forgotten the hunch for good.
This makes me sad. This is also true, as I’ve had this post saved as a draft for over two months.
E-mail always seemed to me a Grownup problem. Even though the e-mail frustration has been discussed in length – see “Zero Dark Inbox” on the New Yorker, email as “the bain of Daniel Pink’s existence” on The Copy Blogger, or even Quora’s answers to “What was working in an office like before email became standard?” – it still seemed like something boring people with boring lives complained about to add texture to their conversations. But now I realize that at any organization larger than one or two people, it’s actually critical to communication. I understand this, and I respect it as a tool for necessary, productive conversation.
But after stressing about my inbox and turning into one of the above dreaded Boring People, I have to come clean about something embarrassing: I am addicted to email. I actually feel enslaved to my inbox. I spend more time creating labels, filters, drafts and priorities than I probably do solving real problems, and/or spending time on ideas I could be pushing forward with gusto. This is NOT OK, but confessing is the first step.
I realized my inner OCD surfaces when I see an unread email. That little red circle or the bolded number at the top of the lefthand column of Gmail taunts me, tempting my weakness and laughing when I give in and read…and respond. The last part, responding, has also come back to haunt me. Sometimes, as anyone with a job knows, you must respond to an 11:00pm email from your boss, because the topic deserves immediate attention, and that’s fair. But you do not, however, have to respond to the 9:00pm email from a colleague asking for suggestions for something. Suggestions are polite; suggestions can wait until the morning. And yet. And yet I respond to every single item that sits in my inbox, because I apparently have no self control.
I thought perhaps I was the lone weirdo whose obsessiveness was turning monstrous when I saw the unreal waiting list for new inbox cure-all app Mailbox. 800,000 people were desperate for even a sliver of a promise of Inbox Zero. That’s almost a million people…on a waiting list…for an app. Are you there, Mailbox? It’s us, people. Mailbox proved Inbox Zero has become the new Promised Land.
An app, however, cannot force us to come to terms with our email obsession. Yes, I know; I started in first person and now I’m bringing you into it. But I do this because I realized I’m not the only one who has a problem. It’s a collective issue we all must get through, whether we blame our crowded inboxes on over-zealous co-workers, or on the dozens of newsletters we’re too lazy to unsubscribe to. The heart of the matter is that we’re scientifically prone to distraction and addiction. Apparently, checking e-mail is as addictive as playing slot machines. We reward ourselves every time we check an email, even if it feels like a slow prickling poke of death.
It has to stop. In order to reclaim the right side of my brain, meddle in my curiosities a bit more and continue to write every now and then, I have to learn how to let emails hang ten until the next morning. If I can train myself to check emails once or twice after I leave the office, I’d ensure I don’t miss anything major, but would also reclaim my evenings, and the very curiosity that informs (or should inform) my job.
Inbox Zero is a fallacy, because more email is as inevitable as death. And with that rationale, I’ve turned off my desktop notifications and push notifications, starting at 9pm. We’ll see how long this lasts, but I’m hopeful I can live a life where that little red circle doesn’t suck the sanity out of me.