Dear Email, It’s Time We Take a Break

This is an adaptation from a post I wrote on my graduate studies blog based on readings for my course about our attachment to smartphones, social media and email. I’m learning how to make the most of the time I spend with these things and unplugging more often to become a more productive member of our society and less of a zombie sheep. Check out more on these subjects here and follow along with my witty realizations on Twitter @ArianaSheehan.

Dear Email,

It’s about 8 p.m. and I’m lying in my bed thinking about you. I don’t know how to say this, and I know we’ve been together for so long, but I think it’s time we take a break. Not a forever break, I just need some space.

You see, I’m starting to think we spend a little too much time together. I find myself thinking about you constantly, when I’m with other people or when I’m alone but should be focusing on other things. I can’t resist peeking at you when you’re near and often have flashbacks of what you looked like the last time I saw you.

I hear the soft ding of your voice in my sleep and sometimes I search for you when I awake in bed in the middle of the night. I know it’s not healthy to seek you as often as I do or think about you during most of my conscious hours. But I just… can’t… stop.

Others have overcome your power. Like Shane Parrish of Farnham Street. I was reading a blog post on his site for my graduate studies class and was curious about who the author was after not seeing a byline on the post. It’s been about 11 years since I’ve been in an academic setting, so wanting to be the teacher’s pet, I figured I’d shoot him a version of you, Email, to ask who authored “How to Remember What You Read.” Only when I went to the About section of the site, I was stunned at what I found:

“I used to post an email address, but people contacted me at an alarming frequency. Increasingly, this became a distraction as what I do requires long hours of uninterrupted concentration. If you want to get in touch, please use the postal address.”

There was a postal address provided below, and I’m no quitter, so I sent Parrish a letter. That’s right, I tore out a piece of my brand new school notebook, picked out a purple-inked pen and I communicated with him the same way our forefathers used to do it on paper. I wrote:

Shane,

I hope this “old school” handwritten letter finds you well.

I’m a 32-year-old graduate student from New York studying interactive media at Quinnipiac University while working as a regional content strategist for a large radio company. My professor assigned us to read “How to Remember What You Read” and, in attempting to properly source, I struggled to find the author. I know you must do a lot of the writing for Farnham Street yourself, but I believe it’s better to be an accurate slow second than a quick and misinformed first.

So I wrote you this letter to ask you who the author of this blog post is?

Appreciate your time reading this and would extra appreciate a response, which would be great via any of the following:

Email: sheehan.ariana@gmail.com
Twitter: @ArianaSheehan
Text: [redacted because I’m not dumb enough to put my phone number in a blog]

Thank you much,
Ariana Sheehan
P.S. I love your work.

You should know that my hand cramped writing this letter out. Also, Parrish’s postal address is in Canada, which meant, like, three stamps.

I mailed my letter out on Aug. 31 and on Sept. 18 I received a reply from a woman named Brigitte who identified herself as Parrish’s assistant. I got the reply via one of your relatives, Email.

I found it ironic that Brigitte chose to communicate with me using the method that Farnham Street did not want to engage in, but from what I read in Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Parrish’s approach falls in line with the Monastic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling. In the book, Newport wrote about computer scientist Donald Knuth. On Knuth’s website, he acknowledges that he does not want to be distracted by email. Knuth’s rules regarding emailing are spelled out

in more detail than Parrish’s on his site and include these foundations:

  • Knuth will respond to someone who writes snail mail to him with a question or comment about one of his books.
  • While he does have email addresses on this page, his secretary sorts through the messages and determines which are worth bringing to Knuth’s attention. Those worthy will be answered in batches, the others sent to a buffer storage area.
  • He will accept faxes but only looks at messages received via fax every six months as opposed to every three months for other communication.

I read through other philosophies in Newport’s book and self-identified at first with the Rhythmic Philosophy which involves a person dictating a pre-set schedule for when, how and where they will do deep work and creating a rhythmic routine of it. This is anti another philosophy Newport described in which a person will travel to a remote area, lock themselves in a room and do deep work until they are finished. But getting time off to lock myself in a cabin and focus is not a reality of my life as even when the workday ends, my “work day” as a mom continues.

I came to realize that I most identify with Newport’s Journalistic Philosophy of Deep Work, which means I basically decide on the fly when and where I can engage in deep work.

“I face each week as it arrives and do my best to squeeze out as much depth as possible,” Newport said in explaining the philosophy.

But the truth of the matter is, Email, that following this philosophy often leads me to fail in doing deep work. The days that I think I have planned, organized and prepared for well fall apart with one urgent phone call, or worse, one daunting message in you. As Newport said, “Attempting to schedule deep work in an ad hoc fashion is not an effective way to manage your limited will-power.”

Mabbly founder Adam Fridman had some healthy alternatives to constantly being distracted by you and your cohorts in “How to Stop Email Distractions at Work” in Inc. He suggested speaking to co-workers face-to-face more or using project management systems to funnel all communication through one central area. He also made a point we far too often ignore: that many of the emails that distract us from our regular lives are from non-important people sending messages that are not worthwhile. Emails like store offers or updates. One meaningless distraction can set us so far off course it can be hard to get back on.

“It can take you up to 20 minutes to return to your work once you allow an interruption,” Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen wrote in “Remedies For the Distracted Mind” in Behavioral Scientist. The authors called our tethering to email a “tyranny” and said the only way to fully rid our minds and fingertips of its hold is to set boundaries that we will not check email outside of working hours.

But, Email, that’s easier said than done.

In Deep Work, Newport described a strategy of ending the workday that, on surface, actually sounds pretty simple, maybe even a little cheesy. It includes creating a shutdown routine that is the same each day and even ends with an out-loud affirmation in which you say “shutdown complete” once the ritual has ended. Strategies like this only work if you’re all in, and, Email, I’m pretty much there.

“To succeed with this strategy, you must first accept the commitment that once your workday shuts down, you cannot allow even the smallest incursion of professional concerns into your field of attention,” Newport said. “This includes, crucially, checking e-mail, as well as browsing work-related websites.”

In my last post, I wrote about becoming aware of my own social media addiction and how shocking it was to realize how dependent I had grown on scrolling my feeds. But before I cared about who commented on my posts or what was happening in my friends’ stories, I was incessantly checking email at night, making sure I didn’t miss anything important I needed to be on top of at work. I’ve always been a hard worker, but I’ve never been one to leave work at work.

“When you work, work hard,” Newport said. “When you’re done, be done.”

Email, I need to be better at being done with you when the work day is done. We can’t keep going on like we have been, it’s not healthy for me and it doesn’t make us productive together. I know this transition won’t be easy. I’ll stumble. I’ll turn to you here and there at night, especially when something big is happening. I won’t be able to resist you when I see you around with important people, or when you intrigue me with your seductive subjects.

But you know what? I’ll still be around, especially between the hours of 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. During the day, I’ll be with you constantly. I’ll check you, I’ll refresh. I’ll supplement my attachment to you by adding attachments to you.

In the end, I know this is what’s best for our relationship and I think will make me value the time I spend with you more. So for now, I’ll say goodnight but not goodbye. I already can’t wait to see you in the morning.

Best,

Ariana

Dear Email… Credit: Ariana Sheehan

I like to write for fun, but mostly for sanity. By day I'm a Senior Digital Strategist. By night I'm a non-laundry-folding mom.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store