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 caroline@carolinecrampton.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.

This newsletter is free, but if you would like to support me or my wonderful colleagues at the Browser, consider pre-ordering my new book or buying a Browser subscription. I'm also on Instagram.

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