The Email Tortoise

Whether I like it or not, email is a big part of my job. (And I’d guess this statement holds true for you, as well.)

In the past, the biggest email innovation that I had experienced was the ability to use keyboard shortcuts in my mail app to quickly read and sort emails into folders.

As the saying goes, though, first you use the tool and then the tool begins to use you: processing email quickly, via keyboard shortcuts, only made me want to process email more quickly. Whenever I entered my inbox, I measured the quality of my engagement by using a quantity-based metric. In short, a good email session meant that I removed emails quickly.

As I worked to increase my processing speed, every email session felt like a sprint, my digital lungs burning as I lapped the digital track.

And then I maxed out and, frankly, burned out. At a certain point, I couldn’t go faster. Measuring quality as quantity meant that I was as good as I was ever going to be. Which is when my mail app, serendipitously, crashed.

A colleague advised me to use the web version of email while the app sorted itself out. He assured me that everything would return to normal in a day or two. The backend, as is sometimes the case, was out of whack.

As I started using the web version of email, I was forced to work very slowly. I didn’t know my way around the interface. My old tricks — for speeding up the process — didn’t work.

Working slowly, something strange happened. My joy for the medium returned. My intentionality turned up a notch — and then another notch. I was slower, yes, but I found myself asking questions like:

  • Is this the best time to send this email, or should I schedule it?
  • Would the contents of this email be interesting or informative to someone other than the primary recipient?
  • If I send this email, is it going to generate another email? And would that be a good thing?
  • Should I save that email I just wrote in case I have to use parts of it again in a different venue or in a separate message?
  • Should I just walk down the hall or pick up the phone?
  • If I reply to this email right now, quickly, will I be training this recipient to expect quick replies from me from here on out? Do I want to be beholden to that expectation?

Another thing that happened during my slow emailing is that, ironically, deeply so, I reached “inbox zero” for the first time in three years. Tortoise-like, I beat the hare I had been.

By moving slowly, I found that I never — okay, rarely — needed to pass over an email to solve it later. Solving later, it turns out, is only a problem for someone trying to move very quickly in the moment. In my old system, emails that would take four minutes to process were massive roadblocks. Four minutes was an eternity to someone who prided himself on crushing emails in mere seconds. As a result, they remained “unread” which meant I glanced at them again and again — and passed on them again and again.

The new me, emailing slowly and steadily, sees email as an opportunity to be connected to others, to be responsive, to demonstrate engagement, and to sound like a human being. I give each email the time that it deserves. I still favor short responses — one word if the message permits — but that has more to do with my acknowledgment, regained in slowness, that there’s a colleague or friend on the other end of the send button. And their time is important. My old way of emailing was designed as a response to a more selfish instinct — my time is important. Both are true, but the former is more true in a communication exchange for which I am responsible.

Machines are built for speed. That’s one of the things that they do best. Humans are built for context and nuance and connection. As a human emailer emulating a machine, my upside was limited in that I would only ever be able to increase my speed up to a certain point. This meant that every time I entered my inbox I was destined to fail; worse, in some corner of my mind, I know now that I was keeping score and worn down by losing a run here, a run there. On the other hand, as a human emailer emulating a human, my upside is unlimited because I can always connect with others more deeply, more thoughtfully, more intentionally; I can always raise my awareness of context and tone and the needs of others.

To round out the story, I won’t be returning to the mail app I was using, even though it resolved itself and seems to be working perfectly fine again. I’m sticking with the web-based version of email for a simple reason — as a toolkit, it amplifies and extends aspect of my personality and ability that I want to amplify and extend. I can still email quickly, but speed is now a choice rather than a default. (I choose to email quickly when I’m sitting at the center of a bottleneck and my input, via email, is the only thing that can allow work to flow.)

Best of all, when I open my email now, I don’t see it as a mountain to crush; I see it as a mountain that, climbed slowly and steadily, will offer up the joy of human connection . . . and a great view. It’s not a grind anymore. It’s an interesting daily ramble.

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