Email Experiment

For the follow up to this blog post, please see I Want To Be an Email Reprobate.

Lately I’ve become email-avoidant — again. It’s an old pattern of mine and it’s served me well in the balance. Even so, it can be problematic. But this morning I had an idea of a way I might be able to address it. Hence this post.

Emails that upset me are why I often steer clear of my inbox. As best I can tell the authors of these emails don’t have any malintent. Nevertheless, potent ones suck up my bandwidth. Some even keep me up at night. And life is short.

The magic this morning was remembering the two qualities that have been my guiding lights for the past year. I suddenly connected the dots between them and this issue. Those qualities are kindness and spaciousness.

I have two strategies I’ll be experimenting with as a way to meet those needs in email.

  1. I will be as clear as I can that typically I’m on email only 3 or 4 days a week — and I try to get through it in one sitting. This has been true for a while, but nonetheless, some people seem surprised when I don’t respond within a few hours — let alone a day or two. For people who need me to respond in a timely fashion, please call or text me.
  2. I will not reply to emails that upset me. To alert people to this new strategy, I’ll link to this blog post in my signature and in autoresponders.

Elaborating on #2….

I’m deeply habituated from work to believing that I must reply to emails. But guess what — I am no longer working. I do have some consulting jobs, but they have never been an issue. In fact, work emails were never the issue. It’s emails from volunteer organizations I care about deeply that are usually the source.

For several months, I’ve been trying (when I can remember) to reply to such emails in a kind way. But that strategy is not working. Who knows why. It doesn’t really matter. And hopefully this new strategy will be more effective.

For those curious about what emails do and don’t work for me, here are my lists.

Emails That Work For Me

  • Setting dates — for lunch, a phone call, whatever.
  • Other factual type emails.
  • Thank yous.
  • Other obviously considerative or supportive emails, including timely reminders.
  • Sincere apologies.

Emails That Do Not Work for Me

  • Blaming or shaming me or others. Even if it’s just one sentence in a long email that is otherwise fine or maybe even lovely, blame is never, ever okay. And shaming is even worse. The catch is that we live in a blaming culture, and thus it’s common. Often it’s subtle. Sometimes it’s unintended, but email is dangerous — and what counts is impact, not intent. When people are blaming me or others, typically it’s because they are afraid that otherwise they will be blamed for whatever the issue is. My suggestion — don’t blame anyone, including yourself. This is not an easy practice, but it’s richly rewarding. The essence is setting aside what might have caused the problem and instead figuring out a constructive way to move forward.
  • Demands, i.e. those emails that seem to expect me to do something that I have never agreed to do. Reminders of things I’ve already said I’d do are very different.
  • Opinions. I’m fine talking with folks about opinions, but I don’t have time to be reading opinions in email. Alas, these too are a common problem. I used to frequently fall into the trap (though hopefully no longer do) of thinking if I put my opinions in an email that made them more solid or real. And I bet that’s the source of a lot of the opinion emails I get. What I’ve learned is that, if anything, email makes them less real, since when people don’t agree with my opinions (and usually they don’t), receiving such emails results in them (a) getting annoyed or (b) replying with their opinions in an email that perpetuates a fruitless-at-best cycle.

There may be other categories I haven’t thought of. I’ll expand this list if I run into ones that seem helpful.

I intend to try this experiment for six weeks. At the end of that time, I’ll post a brief follow-up and decide whether or not to continue.

Finally a note to those of you who I’m not responding to because your email bothered me…. This has to do with my negative reaction to your email — not to you as a person. It’s really important to me to create a kind and spacious environment, so I do what I can to make that possible. My hope is that in the end my choices will benefit you too. May we all be happy and free.