Once upon a time in a land not too far away we wrote letters on a typewriter, using carbon paper if we wanted to keep a copy and Wite-Out if we made a mistake, put them in envelopes with stamps on them, and waited several days for them to be delivered by the United States Postal Service. We fully expected the person on the receiving end to take a day or so before opening our letter. If (and only if) our letter was of higher importance than the other letters on the recipient’s desk, a response would be composed in a few days, put in the mail, and we’d receive the response a few days after that. The whole process, if everything worked, would take about two weeks.
And the world kept turning.
An article came out not too long ago about how people’s email inboxes fill up so quickly, and whether or not there is any merit to the concept of ‘inbox zero’. Inbox zero is the (aspirational?) goal of getting your inbox down to zero. Some people think it is something you should strive for, and some people think it isn’t worth the effort.
Personally, I think inbox zero is as possible as a unicorn knocking on my office door with a pepperoni and onion personal pan pizza.
I have three email accounts that I use with some regularly, and about three others that I check only rarely. The ones I use regularly keep an unread count of 9999+. It’s not because I don’t check them often. I check them constantly. I just can’t keep up.
Email begets email. The more you respond to email, the more you get email in return. In order to survive, to keep your chinny-chin-chin above the water line as your feet paddle and paddle, you have to develop a working triage system. You can’t trust the little red arrows and exclamation that designate important emails because they are placed there by the senders, and some people think everything they have to say is important. Other people think that what they have to say isn’t important when it really is.
Which brings me to my main point.
The number of unread emails in my inbox really stresses me out. I live in fear that I have missed an important email. More than once I have composed a response in my head and then not actually sent it, then been surprised when the ‘recipient’ was miffed because they didn’t hear back from me. I feel obliged to examine each email sent to me: if someone bothered to compose it and send it to me, I should at least take the time to see what it is, if not read all the words.
But should I really?
A few weeks ago I took that idea of mine off its shelf and examined it in detail, and I saw that it was crudely made.
Companies selectively send me junk mail – ahem – advertising flyers through the mail because there is a cost to them. Printing, postage, mailing lists. It doesn’t cost them jack squiddly to send me emails three times a day. Whether they send one or one million emails is the same price, it’s all just hitting a send button to a mailing list they already have. Some marketing department deciding that the rule is that you have to see something three times before you hit the ‘buy’ button does not obligate me to do anything but hit delete.
But what about the actual humans? The people who have personally contacted me directly with an actual issue or question they want to speak to me about? Don’t I owe them my attention?
Yes. No. Maybe. Sometimes. Mostly, but not now.
Let me explain. You don’t get to decide my priority list. You don’t know what else is on my already very full plate. For that matter, you don’t get to decide if anything else gets put on my plate. Just because you want to be added to my to-do list, and just because you want to be added to the top of it, doesn’t mean that’s going to happen. Even if there’s a red exclamation mark next to your request.
People have different conceptions of on-line communications than they do in person ones.
Imagine that we were at a cocktail party or a networking event, and I was involved in a very intense conversation with The Boss. You wouldn’t grab my arm and rip me away from the conversation and start yours. You would (unless you were a sociopath, which I’m thinking is more and more prevalent) say to yourself, “oh, she’s busy” and go find something else to do or wait your turn. But on-line, people feel free to email, then when they don’t get a response right away, to email again. Then again. Then again, complaining that they haven’t heard back and what’s the problem, why aren’t you doing your job?
The problem, my dear, is that you are assuming that I am sitting here at my desk, just waiting for you to demand my attention. It isn’t like that. What you think is an emergency probably isn’t – not too long ago we all waited two weeks for the answers you think you should have in two hours and nothing horrible happened. At any given moment, there are 9999+ people clamoring for my attention, and I am the only person who gets to decide who is next.
And guess what? Sometimes
the person who is next is me.
 Yes, I looked it up. This is how it is spelled. It is a registered trademark of the BIC corporation and it is their brand of correction fluid, which is the generic name for the stuff. ‘Correction fluid’ is not funny in a sentence, it does not roll trippingly off the tongue, AND it is not universally recognized as the white crap you brush on to paper to cover up typos, so I’m not going to use it.
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Lori B. Duff is an award-winning author who practices law on the side. Her latest book, “If You Did What I Asked in the First Place” was awarded the Gold Medal for humor in the Foreword INDIES awards in 2019. You can follow her on Twitter at @LoriBDuff and on Facebook. For more blogs written by Lori, click here. For more information about Lori in general, click here. If you want Lori to do your writing for you, click here. If you want Lori to help you market your book, click here.