Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Flash flood warnings

I looked at the clock in the kitchen.  "10:32 am," I announced, "and it's officially summer."  I'd dispatched the morning's batch of email and was ready to grab a fresh cup of tea and start to draft something less...administrative.

I long to turn off the faucets of email. The drip drip drip of offers from every company I've ever dealt with.  The political fundraising emails with five bright emojis embedded in the subject line is screaming "the world's on fire!"  Sometimes I can let them go, let them burble by like a stream, pretending the flow is just a soothing background noise.  Sometimes the drain is plugged up, and every email I send is immediately responded to in triplicate, the water in my inbox rising exponentially, until it spills over onto the floor, the flood washing away time to think, to write, to plan, to listen.  And sometimes it's a literal flash flood warning, tumbling into my inbox from the township I live, the township I work in and the college.

I'm tempted as summer marches in to leave an away message on my email.  I'm writing.  I'm thinking.  I'm leaving space to muse.  I'm cleaning my office and reading poetry.  Write back in August if it's still seems urgent then.

I've done it before. When I left to make the Spiritual Exercises in January of 2009 I put just such a message up: 

I'll will not have access to email for the next month. All incoming messages will be deleted. If you need a response, please email me after February 9.

I discovered three things.
I am not that important.  As far as I can tell, time and the world kept right on moving.  Nothing awful happened and two or three people wrote me emails in February about things that were important. 
Email has a short event horizon.  Once you are past that, you can't be dragged in.  Last week's full out emergency has been dealt with (or not).  The next one is already fulminating and will quickly wash away the dregs of the last .
You will simply not be believed.  One person wrote me over and over, begging me to respond. (She copied someone else on the emails, which is how I saw them. The other person in the list was seriously amused.)  Though the email said I had no access and would be deleting any and all incoming messages, she assumed this was mere hyperbole.  Fun fact: the task she was hoping I would tend to was not due until a full month after my stated date of return.
And perhaps there is a fourth piece of wisdom I gleaned from that experience. Despite having stepped out of email for a significant period of time, it remains difficult to consider doing so again.  There are practical concerns, it requires more than simply creating an away message. I do have responsibilities that must be taken care of even when I'm officially off the clock, and while I am privileged to be able to wrangle assistance with those, I still have to wrangle the coverage, and be aware that someone else is doing some work for me.

It's the more existential concerns that bite.  I worry about missing out on some incredible opportunity. What if the WaPo invited me to be a regular columnist? Right?  I worry about missing out what's happening at work. But what really worries me?  That the world won't miss me at all.

There are two interesting and relatively recent pieces in The Atlantic on not responding to email.  One on ghosting your email from earlier this year; this one on the reaction of senders to discovering that you sent your email to the trash while you were on vacation.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! It's hard to unplug -- but we have to JUST DO IT! My two nephews rarely respond to email, texts, and phone calls. I sometimes find this annoying. I think they may be onto something worth imitating!