I Am No Longer Good At Email
Welcome to No Complaints, a (sometimes) twice-weekly newsletter by Browser editor-in-chief Caroline Crampton. Despite the subject matter of this particular edition, correspondence is always welcome: reply to this email or contact email@example.com. If you would prefer not to hear from me but stay on the list for other Browser emails, update your email preferences in your account menu.
In this edition: some thoughts on digital productivity and why it might be advantageous to become less good at responding to email.
I used to identify as someone who was “good at email”. By that I meant that I didn’t sit staring at my inbox every second of the day, but I would also never let 24 hours go by without replying to something that needed my input. I had folders, labels, tabs. I was on top of it. The phrase “sorry for the delay in replying...” was not one that I ever needed to deploy.
During the phase in 2022 when I was very heavily procrastinating from writing a book, I consumed all of the key texts in the digital productivity genre: David Allen, Cal Newport, James Clear. I knew all about “the two-minute rule” and “deep work” and “inbox zero” and “habit stacking”. I had two designated 15-minute sessions in the day when I replied to email and I never struggled to get through everything in that time. When I heard others complaining about the never-ending time-suck that was their own inbox, I felt baffled, or slightly smug, or both. Did they not know that you could just... deal with it all and move on with your day?
It turns out that I just wasn’t receiving very much email.
To demonstrate what I mean, here is an incomplete list of email conversations I have been part of in the last week that have required multiple daily responses from me.
- Signing off the final version of a book jacket
- Discussing what articles I might write in support of my book’s publication
- As above, but with my US book publicist
- Working with my agent on booking some guests for a new podcast I’m hosting
- Finding a date and venue for a book launch (this thread contains over 50 responses)
- Clearing some outstanding copyright permissions for a book passage (also over 50 responses on this one)
- Arranging a trailer swap for my podcast
- Working out with my mother which furniture I want to keep and how I will remove it from my childhood home before the sale goes through
- Workshopping questions for an upcoming podcast appearance
- Agreeing changes to an article pre-publication with an editor
None of these conversations are just conversations. None can be concluded with a simple “yes, that’s fine” or “no, let’s try again” or “see you Tuesday”. All represent other, more detailed kinds of work: researching the copyright status of a particular line of poetry; deciding how I want the book I have spent the last five years working on to be presented visually to the world, or finding out the relative square footage of different bookshops in London. The email is just the final step in a much longer process, the communication of the writing done or the decision arrived at. Grouping all of these very different and time-consuming tasks together as “email” just because that particular technology is involved as the smallest, least important step is a mislabelling that, for me, has resulted in wildly inaccurate estimates of how quickly I can get things done.
Unpicking this has required me to adopt a new approach, counter to all the teachings of my formerly-beloved digital productivity gurus. The task is the writing, the editing, the researching, the thinking. Using email to notify others of what I have produced or concluded is just what happens when I have finished. It is not a category of its own. There is no virtue in doing that promptly if the work itself is not good, nor in only looking at my inbox at certain proscribed times of day.
I’m also just not replying to everything any more, or indeed most things. This might not apply to you, but because I publish things semi-regularly and my contact information is out there on the internet, I get a fair amount of unsolicited email. Most of it is charming and well-meaning (a small proportion of it is not, of course) but that, I am realising, does not mean that I have to reply to it. Previously, I used to reply to everything from strangers as promptly as if it was from a close friend or colleague. I am beginning to realise that this was an odd thing to do. Just because someone has looked up my email address doesn’t mean I owe them anything; I agree with Elyse Myers that the communication norms of our always-on existence are strange. As she says, the fact that “someone at any time, any place, any mental state can send you a message, and now you’re the asshole if you don’t respond to it” feels backwards if you think about it for very long.
Long-time readers will know how often I think about this 2017 article by Melissa Febos, which is devastatingly titled thus: “Do You Want to Be Known For Your Writing, or For Your Swift Email Responses?”. There are no prizes to be had for sustained inbox zero. The books and scripts I want to write are not outweighed in importance by even the most pressing email.
I’m not advocating a complete abandonment of civility and etiquette, of course. I am not Ed Sheeran, who can outsource even having a phone to an employee so as preserve his time for creative work. But I can care less about email, devote less time to creating elaborate systems of thought and habit around it, and allow my response times to stretch longer as the actual work that comes before the emails demands it.
For me and my peculiar combination of jobs, it is unlikely that this period of high email traffic will last forever. Writing books is a seasonal activity: sometimes nobody wants to speak to you and sometimes everybody does. Once A Body Made of Glass is launched and on shelves, I expect that my inbox will simmer back down to its usual levels. I laughed recently when my accountant told me he was using an “averaging” technique for my tax return that is only permitted for farmers and for writers — the two lines of work where you might have a year with a very good harvest and then one without a crop at all. But regardless of when I ease back in to a fallow period, I’m going to try and keep my newfound disinterest in email. Being bad at email might actually be best for me.
Never-Ending, Always-Changing Versions
Welcome to No Complaints, a twice-weekly newsletter by Browser editor-in-chief Caroline Crampton. On Fridays, I share links of interest to me that I have gathered during my many hours of reading online. Correspondence always welcome: reply to this email or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
In this edition: a thriller recommendation, the curse of “good material” and a date with Chekhov.
As you read this, I am on my way south after three weeks spent at my house on a tiny Scottish island, where phone signal was minimal and it was only light for about six hours a day. I really recommend leaning hard into the darkest time of year: it makes every speck of light you see, both real and figurative, feel much more precious. I’ve been working on and off, but I return to my desk in earnest on Monday. There is an exciting year ahead, with my new book coming out in April and an audiobook to record and so forth. But I have enjoyed this deep, quiet breath drawn at the start of everything.
Here are some things I came across during this time that I thought you might like too.
- The fiction of Anthony Gilbert, aka Lucy Beatrice Malleson. I have recently read five of her novels from the 1930s and 1940s, and I would highly recommend them as a spirited blend of thriller, noir and crime fiction full of lots of pleasing period detail. The Woman in Red from 1941 was my favourite. Malleson’s memoir of writing in the 1930s, Three-A-Penny, is also well worth your time.
- Apt, for the season of the writing life I am about to enter: this piece on writerly jealousy. “There’s a bad double bind in being a writer: If you don’t write about things people are interested in, nobody is going to read you. But if you write about things people are interested in, other people are writing about them, too.”
- I found this piece about a man who moved from Bogotá to Helsinki without ever having set foot in Finland before very wholesome and heartwarming. He finds the high level of personal safety delightful — children are left to sleep alone outside! — and becomes a big fan of walking in pine forests.
- Maud Newton’s concise, conflicted thoughts on being a writer with “good material” in their past. As someone who is about to publish a book that talks for the first time in public about her teenage experiences with cancer, I identified with some of what she had to say.
- There are a lot of very strange customs that I, a British person, had never heard of in this video roundup of recent folklore practices, but I still watched the whole thing.
- I’m planning on listening to fewer podcasts in 2024 and instead devoting more headphone hours to audiobooks and radio plays. This collection of BBC audio adaptations of Chekhov will keep me busy for a while.
- Jonathan Jones on tarot. Both informative and, because he seems completely unaware of the non-ironic love for the form among thirty-something Instagram witches (hi!), hilarious.
- I am obsessed with the Icelandic singer-songwriter Laufey and have watched her appearance on NPR’s Tiny Desk about three times a day since it was published last month.
- I recently revisited this, by Alex Sujong Laughlin, about how the state of modern media forced her into becoming an unwitting ghostwriter of other people’s stories. I still think it’s the best thing I’ve read about how today’s journalism has The Stars who rack up the big paychecks and social media followings while the unknown, overworked people behind the scenes who make it all happen go unacknowledged.
- A kind of jukebox for your browser, which allows you to pick a single song on Spotify and then hear never-ending, always-changing versions of it.
Until next time,
I Don't Have To Put Up With This
No Complaints, a newsletter by Caroline Crampton, is returning from a somewhat-indefinite hiatus. Welcome back: I hope to be sending you something twice weekly for the next few months at least: one piece of writing and one compilation of links I have recently enjoyed. Correspondence always welcome: reply to this email or contact email@example.com.
In this edition: how the internet experience might be getting worse and the small tweaks we can make to have it feel less awful.
Since it has been a while and I’ve moved newsletter providers several times since I was last writing to you consistently (perhaps I will tell you about that one of these days, should you be interested), I will reintroduce myself. I’m Caroline Crampton: editor-in-chief of The Browser, where this newsletter now resides as part of a family of excellent emails.
I'm also the creator of the Shedunnit podcast about golden age detective fiction and the author of two non-fiction books — my latest one, A Body Made of Glass: A History of Hypochondria will be published in the US and UK in April and is currently available for pre-order at all booksellers. For a more detailed overview of me and my work, I recommend my website and my Instagram account, which is my only really active social media presence these days.
Final piece of housekeeping: if you would rather not hear from me in this form — and I will only be a little sad if that is the case — you can use the unsubscribe link at the bottom of this email or, if you are a fan of other Browser emails and would like to keep getting those, update your email preferences in your account menu.
Producing an edition of the Browser newsletter involves scrolling through many thousands of articles every week. With two years of doing this now behind me, I have honed my instincts considerably. For most pieces, I only need to see the metadata (publication, date, headline, author name, etc) to reject them as unsuitable for inclusion. For a smaller number, I scan a few sentences or paragraphs before closing the tab. The tiniest cohort by far contains those that I read in their entirety, occasionally more than once. Some of those will end up as recommendations in the newsletter, others will, after much consideration, be discarded too.
There is no subject remit for the newsletter; we are looking only for “writing of lasting value”, whatever it might cover. As such, it interests me when certain themes recur among our selections. This usually corresponds either to a dominant preoccupation for those publishing writing online — major global news events, widespread trends — or a personal fascination for me or my fellow editors. I know, for instance, that I have been recommending more articles about health anxiety, Long Covid, chronic fatigue and associated topics while I have been working on my own book about hypochondria. It’s a subjective process, this assembling of good recommendations, done by people rather than machines. Those who remain subscribers year after year have presumably found that our individual taste overlaps with theirs.
One theme I find myself increasingly gravitating towards is the degradation in the quality of our online life. In the past year I have recommended articles with titles like “The Internet Is Already Broken”, “The People Who Ruined The Internet” and “The ‘Enshittification’ Of TikTok” — all of which touch on aspects of how the experience of navigating and using the internet has been made worse by those prioritising profit over usability.
For most of us, we spend so much time online and these changes for the worse occur so sporadically that we develop coping behaviours before we notice why we need them. I’m sure you also have an ingrained habit never to click on the top result for a Google search because it will be unhelpfully sponsored, and possess the muscle memory embedded deep in your thumb that enables you to swipe over a social media ad before even a second of it has played. As someone who spends hours every day trying to read articles on websites, for me it is the sheer volume of sanctioned distractions there that really bothers me. Even on sites where I am a paying subscriber or intrusive advertising is kept to a minimum, I still find myself having to click out of multiple injunctions to donate, register or subscribe to a newsletter before I can do what I came to do: read.
Two things recently conspired to bring this into focus for me. The first was this line in a recent article by Kate Brody:
“Like it or not, this is how we live now — half-flesh and half-username. To avoid it entirely rings false.”
Brody is a novelist and she is discussing her long-held reluctance to incorporate the contemporary use of technology in her fiction because there is so much unconvincing literary writing about the internet. The phrase “half-flesh and half-username” is a good one, though, and made me think about the permanence of my own divided existence. Unless something cataclysmic, either personal or environmental, occurs, I don’t think I will ever be returning to an entirely analogue life. Why, then, must I endure a sub-standard quality of experience that I would never tolerate in the physical realm? A good realisation: I don’t have to put up with this.
Then I had to set up a new laptop after my previous device died a sudden and unceremonious death after years of long service. I hadn’t noticed how many small additions and tweaks I had made to cushion myself from the worst excesses of the hostile digital environment until I was suddenly trying to exist without them. These have been accumulated after years of trial and error, and so I recommend them to you too if you seek a more pleasant digital life.
- A “reader view” browser extension. I use this one, which is customisable with regards to font, point size and background colour. It does a good job of stripping away advertising as well as extraneous page furniture and sidebars to leave you with just the text of the article you wanted to read. I should note that I don’t use any ad blocking software, because I recognise that advertising is a necessary and time-honoured revenue source for media outlets, but once I’ve given them an impression by loading the page, I feel fine about switching into reader view to rest my eyeballs and improve my concentration.
- A good text clipper application. My preference is TextSniper, which overlays my desktop OS and means that at the touch of a keyboard shortcut I have a selection box to drag over text I want and copy it to the clipboard. It uses optical character recognition, so you can use it on any text, whether it is highlightable with a cursor or not. It even works moderately well on images of handwriting, which I find invaluable for importing handwritten notes or annotations into a digital system.
- Text replacements. On a Mac, this setting resides in the “Keyboard” section of the System Preferences interface; I presume other operating systems have an equivalent. This enables you to set up letter sequences that, when typed, instantly expand into longer words or phrases. As long as you choose combinations of letters that you won’t use in any other situation, this is a huge timesaver. I use an exclamation mark at the start of my phrases to ensure that there is no unwitting confusion, so !t might become my telephone number, !e my email, and so on. I have one for my address, my invoice details, my personal Zoom link, my podcast’s RSS feed, the download link for my author publicity photos, and many other things that I have to type regularly. I even have one for the word “hypochondria”, because you need it when you are writing a three hundred page book about a word that long and hard to spell.
- A proper clipboard. The Alfred app has a lot of functions that I neither understand nor use, but it was worth the money to me simply because it gives you the option to expand your clipboard. Now with a simple keyboard shortcut I can call up the entire history of everything I have copied since I last booted up my computer, meaning that I never lose text I have cut but not pasted, or spend ages looking for a link I copied half an hour ago but now can’t find anywhere.
- A word counter. This might be more specific to my work than of general use, but I find it handy to have a quick way of knowing how many words there are in any piece of text I encounter online. This browser extension works very well for me, with the count available when I right click a highlighted passage.
- A case converter. I have yet to find an in-browser tool that does this, so whenever I have text that is in all caps and needs not to be, I paste it into convertcase.net. A great one to bookmark.
- Single purpose applications. I am trying to use my web browser as little as possible these days, as I find it inevitably leads to distraction and disruption. I now use the Apple Mail desktop app to do email, iCal for my calendar, the Notion app for project tracking, the Todoist app for tasks, Ulysses for writing, the Apple dictionary/thesaurus app, and so on, even though all of these things are available in web-based versions. When I first made this switch, it did make me feel a little like I was going back to how I used a computer in 2007, but I have since found that having to open a dedicated programme to execute a task does cut down the number of times a day that I emerge from a half-hour research rabbit hole with no idea of why I opened the tab in the first place.
- Keyboard shortcuts. This is also another way of minimising distractions and resisting the lure of web browser, I find. If I can quickly add a task to Todoist using their “quick add” shortcut, say, without ever having to lift my fingers from the keys or navigate away from what I am doing, the likelihood of distraction is greatly reduced. The same goes for text clipping and accessing my clipboard — if it can be done without having to use a mouse, it’s far less likely to interrupt me. Opening the dictionary app with two key presses to quickly check a definition is much better than going to an online resource, from which I might as well also check the news, and my email, and so on. I’ve made a concerted effort to learn the common shortcuts for the software I use the most, and it is paying off. There are comprehensive lists that make this easy, such as this one for Apple Mail, this for Todoist and this for Ulysses. A quick search will bring up options for your preferred apps and systems.
- Better searching. I linked to this article in the Browser a while ago, and I still think it is the most comprehensive list of tips on how to find things on the internet that I have ever seen. Even if you think you are a wizard at tracking down obscure PDFs (and this is very much how I see myself), you will learn something new here.
I don’t think that the internet is going to become a more user-friendly place any time soon, for all that a certain cadre of techno-optimist likes to talk about “Web 3.0”. Since many of us do need to exist as “half-flesh and half-username”, I hope you find something here that makes that a little more pleasant. Do reply and let me know what tools you prefer for this purpose; as a perpetual tweaker (more on that another day), I am always eager to try new things.
Until next time,