To examine our inboxes is to examine our lives: our desires and dreams, our families and careers, our status, our networks and our social groupings, our projects, our commerce, our politics, our secrets/lies/fetishes. Inboxes are anthropological goldmines, textual archives, psychological case studies, waiting to be plumbed and probed for the expansive cultural, ethical, epistemological, and ontological insights lurking therein.
On second thought: they are probably not waiting to be probed, but actually being probed, scanned and algorithmatized, by Google, Amazon, the National Security Agency, the Russians, Julian Assange, employers, ex-lovers who remember your password, current lovers who install surveillance software on your laptop to monitor emails to your ex-lover/next lover, hackers who create fake networks on any public wifi you log onto, and/or anyone else who cares to discover whatever “secrets” you are secreting into the tubes.
It makes more sense to assume your email is a public document than to cling to improbable expectations of privacy. The Post Office made a point of delivering our letters sealed, intact. But the email overseers can read through our inboxes at will without us being any the wiser, and they let others look too: just to skim through until they find the word (the object) “bicycle” or “chainsaw,” and then try to sell us this object . . . for our own good, because they think we might want one. How convenient!
Consider how much of your energy, not to mention your eyesight, is being sucked away, byte by byte, by a deadening deluge of ill-composed blather, corporate groupthink, commercial come-ons, and other meaningless Internet flotsam. Are inboxes becoming bionic appendages of our own consciousness? “Dispatches from the minds of others . . . shot right into the working nerve centers of our new surrogate brains” is how one frazzled correspondent describes the ceaseless barrage. “It’s not just the number of messages but the feeling that somebody has invaded your head.”
Is it too cynical to substitute “email” for “Communist” in Base Commander Jack D. Ripper’s screed from Dr. Strangelove? “I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion, and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.”
Your work life and your social life, your grown-up self and your college self, your single salad days and your soccer-dad phase, all weirdly conjoined in your inbox, drag each other down in a surreal cycle of never-ending reposts, an infinite regression of appointments and deadlines; first drafts and second drafts and third drafts of unnecessary texts being inefficiently composed by too many people at once; offers, notifications, announcements, rescheduling, FYI, reminders, your bills, your tickets, your rental car reservations, many more correspondences than you would have thought necessary about your cheese of the season club and your monthly kitty litter delivery, pictures of your sister’s dessert from last night.
Depending on how methodically you prune and delete, there may well be email in your inbox from people you don’t see anymore; from people you don’t even remember having met; from people who once worked with you but have long since retired. I have email in my inbox from people who are, now, dead to me. And I have email from people who are actually dead.
Remember how 19th-century telegraph users thought that electricity might bridge the gap from this world to the next? Has anyone ever tried to respond to email from someone who has shed his mortal coil? Was there any sort of reply? Something comparable to an out of office bounceback, but for eternity?Our inboxes distract: the electronic screen is an “ecosystem of interruption technologies” with its siren-like calls to answer our email.
From 2015 to 2016, according to the U.S. Enterprise State of Work Report, the time office workers spent on their actual job duties dropped from 46 percent of the workday to 39 percent; it’s as if a 9-to-5-er did productive work until only 12:07. Excessive emails are among the biggest obstacles to efficiency. “Workers’ views of email are increasingly lukewarm, and some outrightly negative. . . . While they tout the effectiveness of email, they also blame its overuse for hurting their productivity.” People report working longer hours yet getting less done. They take fewer lunch breaks, instead catching up on email at their desks.
Our inboxes distract: the electronic screen is an “ecosystem of interruption technologies” with its siren-like calls to answer our email, buy something from Amazon, watch YouTube, or look something up on Google. In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr argues that “we are sabotaging ourselves, trading away the seriousness of sustained attention for the frantic superficiality of the Internet.”
“Regaining our initial momentum following an interruption can take, on average, upwards of 20 minutes,” writes Ron Friedman. We like to think of ourselves as efficient multitaskers, but we are not. “Who knows what that next email, tweet or text message holds in store? Finding out provides immediate gratification. In contrast, resisting distraction and staying on-task requires discipline and mental effort.”
To be effective at our jobs, Friedman advises, we must simply “muster the willpower to resist the temptations” of the inbox. In order to attain Focused Success in a Distracted World (the title of a book by Cal Newport) we need to commit ourselves to doing “deep work”:
Knowledge workers increasingly replace deep work with the shallow alternative—constantly sending and receiving e-mail messages like human network routers, with frequent breaks for quick hits of distraction. Larger efforts that would be well served by deep thinking, such as forming a new business strategy or writing an important grant application, get fragmented into distracted dashes that produce muted quality.
“The world’s workers are typing themselves into a corner,” writes John Freeman.
In some places, all you hear is the ambient hum of the central air-conditioning unit, the creak of Aeron chairs, the cricketlike click of the mouse, and the faint clatter of keystrokes. But if you lean into cubicles or peer between doorways, you will see hunched, tense figures at their computers frantically trying to keep up with their inboxes. Interrupt them, and you will find their expressions glazed, their eyes dried out and weary. Their keyboard has become a messaging conveyor belt—and there is no break time.
Email is behaviorally addictive. Social psychologist Adam Alter defines such an addiction as “something you enjoy doing in the short term, that undermines your well-being in the long term—but that you do compulsively anyway.” Surveys report that 60 percent of adults say they keep their cellphones next to them when they sleep, and half check their email during the night. Physician, heal thyself: Alter admits, “I’m addicted to email. I can’t stop checking it. I can’t go to bed at night if I haven’t cleared my inbox. I’ll keep my phone next to my bed, much as I try not to. The technology is designed to hook us that way. Email is bottomless.”
The ingress to email’s egregious encroachment is the inbox. In what? Where’s the box? Who puts things in? How? Why? Email’s structural elements, such as the inbox, coopt terminology that connotes real physical aspects of paper and communication as they existed in the past. The nostalgic discourse suggests that we are technologically overwhelmed, even alienated (h/t Marx) and estranged from our humanity, by the hypermechanistic process of pushing keys that launch bytes of digital data through cyberspace. Instead, seeking at least some small familiar comfort in lexical archaisms, we “send” a piece of “mail” in response to a “note” that appears “in” our “inbox.”
An inbox once sat at the corner of a desk. Secretaries put things in the busy executive’s, or editor’s, or middle manager’s inbox. The guy behind the desk acted on it (read it, edited it, signed it, stamped it) and moved it to the outbox for filing, typing, or distribution.
The stylized inbox-as-icon emphasizes not paper or mail (nor any particular object) actually being placed into the inbox, but merely the abstracted, objectless action of going in.
Something goes in a box, but what? Not an arrow, obviously; the actual object that would go in the box is overwritten by the arrow, which is the semiotic signifier of in-going.
Anything could go in. Nothing is going in. Going in is. In is going.
The email inbox is an illusion, a metaphor, a construct. Things may be stored, arranged, dumped, therein, but in there they are not boxed. They are the opposite of boxed: they are boundless, they contain multitudes. The objects in your inbox will never overflow the box’s edges, even if you have (as I do) over 25,000 of them.
We check our inboxes obsessively: right after we wake up and shortly before we go to sleep; immediately upon arriving at the office and as soon as we come back from lunch. Also, probably, after using the lavatory. Or even . . . (Urban Dictionary, “analog shit”: “Having to go to the toilet without a phone. ‘I left my cellphone at home; now I have to take an analog shit like a caveman.’”)
If we have correspondents or colleagues in London, Shanghai, or Mumbai, we make a point of checking our inbox when they wake up, and get to work, and get back from lunch. If the email client homepage makes a ping announcing every email, perhaps we open each one instantaneously, as soon as it “lands” in our inbox. If a correspondent responds with as much alacrity, we might have an IM-type conversation by email: ping, ping, ping.
What do you do with whatever is in your inbox? Move items into various hierarchies of folders? Print things out? Delete? Leave items there until the end of the day, for final review? Leave some unanswered (until when?) if they seem lower priority than others? Save nonwork emails for nonwork time?
Once upon a time in the early email era, an inbox seemed to have some limit: a finite amount of storage that, when approached, generated warnings of some kind or slowed down your system. Culling was warranted: attention must be paid. Now technological advances make inboxes limitless. If you receive an email informing that your inbox is nearly full and you need to click on a link to resolve the problem, you are being phished! Chortling to yourself about how there’s no moss growing on you, delete that email. Or keep it—it doesn’t matter.The email inbox is an illusion, a metaphor, a construct. Things may be stored, arranged, dumped, therein, but in there they are not boxed.
Yet despite (or possibly because of) this inbox infinitude, a movement called “Inbox Zero” has established a beachhead. Its puritanically fervent adherents loathe the potential for lassitude and hoarding that (they think) brews in a bottomless inbox. Books, websites, and podcasts supply copious TED-talk-like homilies about the virtues of Inbox Zero. (Spoiler, if you want to skip the sermons: simply delete everything from your inbox.)
Merlin Mann, the guru of what he calls this “Action-based email program,” offers his origin story, “my own struggles over the years of dealing with high volumes of email.” In 1993, his first email account
blew my mind. I knew a dozen people who had email addresses—mostly people in grad school. I would write them letters—they would get there immediately! And then they would write me back. This was astonishing: the sense of connecting with people. It was fantastic. It was unbelievable. Every email was a special little letter. It was like I was getting a little hug from somebody. And I was returning a little hug.
But within a few years, as his address book grew,
it went from being a funny hip thing . . . into being the lingua franca for how you dealt with your entire life, and it became the one source for all incoming and outgoing information, and it started to get a lot harder, and the messages became less like careful letters, and more like an avalanche falling on your head every morning, and it became a lot less fun, and less like a network of hugs.
At first, he didn’t need a system. “To have a system for doing email with a network of a dozen people was silly.” But today, “the only way you’re going to succeed at a job, one of the most important soft skills you have to have is how to deal with a high volume of email. You have to put some kind of system into place that is simple, and repeatable, and will allow you to have some kind of a life outside email.”
This system must be all-encompassing, allowing you “to deal with everything that comes into your world. Reduce the number of possible options for what something could be.”
Mann inveighs against people “living in their inbox. They leave it open all day long, it autochecks throughout the day, little blips come up every minute, and email becomes the nexus for everything they do at work.” Quoting The Big Lebowski’s Walter Sobchak, he warns email addicts: “‘You are entering a world of pain.’ That is not a way to live.” Knowledge workers, people who add value to information, have two main resources, he explains: “time and attention, both finite, irreplaceable. Where you put your time and attention says a lot about who you are.”
There’s no need for you to live in email. That’s not where the action is. Don’t focus on the email to the exclusion of the things that are in the email that need to be liberated to other places. Figure out where stuff goes, where to put it. Where does stuff need to land? Figure that out. Process to zero. Every time you check your email: process, to zero. Convert stuff into action: decide, in the moment, what you need to do. . . .
Think of yourself as an information miner—there are little veins of gold in your email—figure out what they are. Once you’ve mined the gold out of your emails, it’s a dead skeletal husk, and you can throw it away.
To get to Zero, use Mann’s five-step program: 1. Delete; 2. Delegate (by forwarding the email); 3. Respond (if you can respond quickly); 4. Defer (put it aside for later); 5. If it’s something you can do, go do it now and be done with it. Create an archive: just a single folder, called “archive.” But don’t fiddle around in your inbox—don’t play with email. Don’t use it as a to-do list. Don’t let things sit there without a reason. Eschew clutter. Embrace action. Shut your email off sometimes and let it accumulate. “Create little email corpses as often as possible. Go off and do real work.”
Mann’s mantra: “Don’t love email.”
But what if you do? Why is it so tempting to hang around here in our inboxes? We have established that there could theoretically be some good things dribbling through the tubes—what’s wrong with hovering eagerly, waiting for one?
And even if you do drink the Kool-Aid and try to empty your inbox, Ian Bogost warns, “Email pruning doesn’t enact work so much as it simulates work: It’s a ritual—like a secular, corporate rosary—which we perform in the hopes that it will somehow help us leave the domain of ineffectual work and re-enter the domain of gratifying productivity.” It’s a game we play with ourselves. I enjoy deleting email from colleagues I dislike when they retire.
It’s fun to search my inbox (and then my sent-mail) for emails from or to “Leon,” and then go through and expunge all 132, one by one. I even reread a bunch of them as I was doing this, thinking of all the time I wasted exchanging email with him, and yes, admittedly, wasting a little more time, but glad that I would never have to again. That mole was whacked.
As I read through my inbox, detached from the context of immediacy, the contents don’t age well. They mostly do not stand the test of time. They are weird to reread. They are not of much writerly interest, but they do have a significant documentary component—I can relive my life. They are like part of my brain, my memory: not so much the creative part, but the chronological part, the living part, the working, buying, lunching, meeting part.
Here is the email at the very bottom of my inbox, from my son’s second-grade teacher (Ben is now 22).
I wanted to touch base with you about an incident that happened this morning at school. A student told me that Ben had been using “code words” that really stand for inappropriate words. For example, Ben was telling the boys that “banana” stood for the word penis. Yassin was also doing the same thing. From talking with the other students, Ben and Yassin were the two who started this. I spoke with Ben and Yassin and they said that they had been doing this.
I also plan on contacting Yassin’s parents as well. I wanted you to be aware of this so you could speak with Ben. I know that there are changes going on at home and that maybe that might have something to do with it. I have noticed a change in Ben the past couple of weeks. I usually never have to talk to him in class. Lately, I have been having to redirect his behavior. I just wanted you to be aware of that small change.
I will not be zeroing out my inbox.
From Email (part of the Object Lessons series). Used with the permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2019 by Randy Malamud.