“They pulled out their pocket computer, as was their habit first thing, dimly aware of the hope that always spurred them to do so–that there might be something good there, something exciting or nourishing, something that would replace the weariness.” ―Becky Chambers A Psalm for the Wild Built
I could tell she didn’t want to bring it up. The issue seemed so minor. It wasn’t exactly about writing. And she seemed to feel she should have a handle on it already.
But once she said it out loud, I saw everyone else’s eyes light up. Their heads were nodding. And the comments in the chat confirmed it: Emma kept getting derailed by her email. Along with you, me, and everybody else in the world.
It’s especially insidious at this time of the year—this transition time between the end of summer and the beginning of classes. Much of our work at this moment is logistical and cooperative. You’re setting up classes, figuring out how to manage (or be) a TA, connecting with coauthors, applying for and running million dollar grants. Or even $1,000 grants. To say nothing of all the receptions, committee meetings, conferences, talks, and writing groups that need to be planned, scheduled, run, and attended.
In other words, we’re all involved in legitimate, meaningful admin work that requires us to be in increased communication with one other. Which means that gorgeous summertime ooo reply email we’ve had up for months is gone—and now our inboxes are open for business.
How do we handle the wave without drowning?
The funny thing is, most folks I talk to about this make the same mistake with email that they make with writing. They criticize themselves for being undisciplined or disorganized. Then they try to muscle their way through a pretty punishing anti-email strategy.
But, just like writing, the problem with email is not just a matter of discipline. There are conditions outside of us that make email pretty attractive. And there are conditions inside of us that make email pretty satisfying.
First, a reminder, which I’m sure you’ve heard ad nauseum: email applications are designed to distract. The purpose of the chimes, colors, notification button on the app icon—especially those on your phone—is to break your concentration and lure you into interacting with your device. To avoid getting sucked into your email for extended periods of time, you have to work against the design of the technology that is required for you to conduct your personal and professional life. So it’s not that we’re too weak to withstand email. It’s that our weakness has been engineered and cultivated by our tools.
But wait, you say. I’m not even near my email when I get the urge to check it. I just wonder whether so-and-so’s gotten back to me about that grant and then poof! An hour goes by while I clean out my inbox. And that little idea I’d been wondering about goes right outta my head.
Well, now you’re talking about the second set of conditions—the ones that make email so satisfying. Specifically, our brains are wired in such a way that certain parts of email feel good to us. Powering through dozens of messages can give us the loveliest sense of progress (a false one though, since email is never-ending—but still, it’s good in the moment). Apparently, our brains love, not just progress, but also a sense of completion. So when we clean out that inbox, get rid of the notification, and get that little image that shows up when we’ve reached inbox zero? Ahhhhhhhh, says the brain. Thank goodness that’s done.
And we are writers. Scholarly writers. We are not a people who experience a sense of completion from our work very often. So it makes sense, doesn’t it? That we might search for that experience in a form of writing that delivers it so completely and quickly?
When you think about it this way, maybe you can see that the deck is so stacked against us that personal weakness is not really the issue. The reason email is so hard to ignore is that it makes us feel so good—either by relieving tension or satisfying an urge. Therein lies its power.
As well as our own.
Here’s what I mean: the clearer we are about the feeling we’re getting by dipping into email, the easier it is to resist. Are you bored and looking for a distraction? Are you tired and just want to goof off? Are you worried about whether you struck the right tone in your email to the dean?
One way to figure out what you’re feeling is to check your MeMail before you check your Email. In other words, when you have the urge to open your inbox, pause first and notice what you’re feeling physically and emotionally. Check in and see what messages you’re sending yourself, before checking to see what messages others are sending you. When you do you’ll probably notice some patterns that will tell you a lot about how to solve your problem.
Maybe you’ll find that, like Emma, you wonder a lot if there’s something you forgot to take care of in your inbox, and that half the time you’re just popping in for reassurance. Or perhaps you’ll find that you’re like me and have a vague worry that something is going wrong—proof of it is in your inbox and you have to get in there and make everything alright before it gets out of hand.
It doesn’t really matter what the feeling is. What matters is being able to identify it, before automatically hopping into your inbox. This is a fundamental skill we teach at Composed and it applies as much to email as it does to writing: If you check your MeMail before your Email, you’ll gain some insight into what feeling you’re having that email will satisfy. And once you know that, you’ve got loads of options available to you about how to handle that.
And by the way? Checking your MeMail is a pain in the ass. It takes time. It’s uncomfortable. It introduces a whole new set of variables that now we have to actually deal with. But most retreaters I work with find that it’s worth it—and not just because of its potential boost to our productivity.
It’s worth it because our approach to email is part of our writing refuge—the container we create to protect our time, energy, and attention for writing. We want that refuge to be strong. To make our writing easier, yes. But also to bring a kind of sweetness to our days.
Because what’s really at stake when we get lost in a fog of email isn’t productivity. It’s the caliber of our work. The quality of days. Our ability to arrange our time so it brings us that all-too elusive feeling: the sense of a job, not just completed, but well and truly done.
It makes sense that I’m preoccupied with questions about who I’m becoming,
in life and in writing, cuz…it’s almost here!
If you are too, CLICK HERE to find out what’s inside and preorder now.