EMAIL NINJERIE IN THE THEATER OF SPACE-TIME
THIS WRITER'S 10 POINT PROTOCOL
FOR INBOX 10 (ISH) Originally
published in Madam
December 12, 2016 BY C.M. MAYO
IG FAT CAVEAT: If you
have a job and/or family situation that oblige you to use your
smartphone like a bodily appendage, dear reader, a shower of
metaphorical lotus petals upon you, but this post is not for
you. Perhaps you might enjoy reading this
post from 2012 instead. See you next Monday.
The challenge in a pistachio
shell: How to maximize the quality of one's email, both
incoming and outgoing, while minimizing the time and effort
required to dispatch it all the while maintaining the blocks
of uninterrupted time necessary for one's own writing.
What works for me may not work
for you, dear reader, but I know that many of you are also writers,
and a few of you are artists and/or scholars, so perhapsand
here's hoping my time-tested 10 point protocol for dealing
with email will be of as much help to you as it has been to me.
A PRELIMINARY NOTE ON CONTEXT:
How is a writer to cope with this snake-headed conundrum-o-rama
that just about everyone everywhere has been wrestling with since
it first emerged out of the DARPA-depths of this rapacious fabulosity
we call the Internet?
I've been slogging it out with
email for more years than I care to count. It was sometime in
the mid-1990s when I logged on to my first account; I but fuzzily
recall the roboty-dialup-and-connection
sounds and an inky screen with neon-green text. A few years
after that, I was using this cutting-edge thing called an AOL
account. (Whew, AOL, Paleolithic!) Now I use a nearly-as-ancient
yahoo account plus a pair of gmail accounts all funneled into
ye olde Outlook Express inbox, into which pour... pick your metaphor...
As anyone who remembers the late
1990s will attest, it seemed that overnight email blossomed into
a hot-house monsteror, I should say, a Macy's Parade of
monsters and for me, by 2009-2010, when I was on tour for
my novel, The
Last Prince of the Mexican Empire at the same time that
my father was in his
last days, trying to cope with email, both professional and personal,
had become a nightmare.
In 2011-2012 I was tempted to
follow the example of "Swiss Miss" blogger Tina Roth
Eisenberg after her three months of maternity leave: Declare
email bankruptcy. Many a time I was also tempted to remove
my email address from my website. Neither of those strategies
appealed to me, however; I appreciated so many of those messages,
and I also appreciated that, apart from spam and the occasional
bit of nonsense, behind those messages were relationships that
I sincerely valued, even cherished.
I also realizedand this
is something I am writing about in my
book on Far West Texas that hyper-connectivity along
with endless carousels of hyper-palatable distractions are now
woven into the very fabric of modern life. As long as the electric
grid continues functioning, I doubt these forces impinging on
one's experience of work, family, social life, politics, and
travel, will diminish; on the contrary.
Over the past several years,
chip by chip, I managed to whittle down that ghastly backlog
(not to zero, but on some days it gets razor-close). More importantly,
by trial, error, research, and mental muscle, I formulated a
more workable strategy for dispatching the ongoing flow.
Again, that caveat: this post
is not for those who need to be continually available to a boss,
colleagues, clients, friends, or family.
IT STARTED WITH SOME ILLUMINATING
THEN THE FLOODLIGHTS SWITCHED ON WITH "THE MACHINE STOPS"
I gleaned many an insight and
tip for managing email from:
+ Cal Newport's Deep
Work (common sense on a silver platter).
All highly recommended.
For me the most enlightening
reading of all, however, and strange to say, was a work of fiction
from 1909: E.M.
Forster's "The Machine Stops." Astonishingly, that
short story written more than a century ago by an Edwardian Englishman
best known for his novel A Passage to India, envisions
email, texting, Facetime, and the like. It also seems Forster
anticipated the American diet built around corn-syrup heavy fast
food. The main character, cocooned in technology, has turned
into a heartless, incurious, yet hyper-connected blob.
On reading this sci-fi horror, I realized that one needs to evaluate
a technology not by its gee-whiz-what-would-Steve-Jobs-say factor,
but by how it affects the body. I mean, by how it affects one's
human body, brains to toenails, now, here, on Planet Earth.
THE BODY AND TECHNOLOGY IN THE THEATER OF SPACE-TIME
(1) Assuming one can afford it,
does a given technology help one realize one's conscious intentions
born of free will?
(2) Does using said technology
cause one to serve or to neglect the body?
(3) Is there a better available
These are the key questions to
answer for a sense of the true and full (both monetary and nonmonetary)
net cost / benefit of utilizing a given technology because if
your body, which by the way, includes the brain, ends up not
working the way it was meant to, well, in terms of going anywhere
or doing anything or interacting with other people, that more
than kind of sucks.
Some metaphysicians argue that
we are not our bodies, but in essence,
immortal pinpoints of consciousness. It seems to me that
if they're right, after we finish up here on Planet Earth, we
have forever and eternity to do what immortal pinpoints of consciousness
do; and if those metaphysicians are wrong, well, then they're
wrong, and we won't be here anymore to argue with them about
Either way, as I write this and you read this, we are conscious,
each in our place in the Theater of Space-Time. We did not
arrive here encased in technology, but in our human bodies, with
all their pain and joy and bones and squishiness and awkwardness
and grace. Why then would we want machines to do everything
and our breathing for us unless, of course one has the
crap-awful luck to require an iron lung?
I want to utilize technology not to supplant but to enhance living
this life this human life on Planet Earth. Or, to use my
new favorite metaphor, to enhance my experience of being here
now in the Theater
Technology is not bad per se,
of course; it can help us survive and even thrive. But last I
checked, a quality human life requires being able to breathe,
walk, see, hear, exercise, sleep, eat nutritious food and drink
adequate clean water, soak up some beauty, and interact in multitudinous
ways with other people. What good is a technology that turns
us into blobs staring at and fiddling with screens all day, even
as we neglect our relationships? (Or walk into oncoming traffic?)
On the other hand, email, like
pen-and-paper-correspondence of old, is one technology, a powerful
one, that when properly employed can help us work with / get
along with other people. And like pen-and-paper-correspondence
of old, for a writer email can be a joy.
Dead-simple observations, I'll
grant you, gentle reader.
Another dead-simple observation:
Email is like any other tool in that it can be used to good or
bad purpose. For example, you could use a hammer to pound down
a nail that might otherwise snag your sweater, or, say, pulp
your neighbor's pet goldfish (not recommended).
And on the scale of expertise,
one can use email poorly, or with world-class finesse. Let's
say, my very Aristotelian aim has been to employ email reasonably
well so that it may prove useful and without the mental
drag of noodathipious fluffermuffer!
DOWN WITH NOODATHIPIOUS FLUFFERMUFFER!
Finally, after years of frustration
and experimentation... drum roll.... I am no longer overwhelmed
by email. I have not arrived at "inbox zero" because....
drum roll... I am not dead!
And knowing that I am not dead,
other human beings in the Theater of Space-Time continually send
me emails, and I, in turn, write them back. Ping, pong. And that
Medusa's hair of a conundrum-o-rama about pinging the pongs and
pongings the pings, and which pings to pong, etc., is now wrestled
down, at least in my own mind, to a pretty little pretzel.
YEAH, PUT SOME MUSTARD ON
Now I can sincerely say that
I welcome my correspondence (ahem, email). I love
to hear from friends (lunch, yeah!), family (weddings, yay!),
colleagues (congrats on your new book, lotus petals upon you!),
and from readers, known to me or not, I always appreciate a kind
and/or thoughtful word about my books / some subject of interest
/ relevant to my work. I even appreciate cat videos! (Just kidding
about the cat videos. But cousin A., I don't mind if you
send me a cat video.)
For me, of all the 10 points in my method, processing emails
not one or two or three at a whim, but in scheduled batches was
I usually do 20 minutes of email processing
with a stopwatch. It's not that I am trying to hurry through
my email, but rather, I am respecting the limits of my brain's
ability to effectively focus on it. I'm a speed-reader and I
can type faster than lickety-split, but on most days I can deal
with email for only about 20 minutes before my brain cells run
low on glucose and I end up scrolling up and down the screen,
dithering, feeling scattered in short, procrastinating.
(You might be able to do 10 minutes, or, say, an hour in one
go of course, not everyone's energy to focus on their email
is the same, or the same every day and in every circumstance.
One can always set the stopwatch for a different amount of time.)
Don't believe me about batching?
Check out the extra-crunchy research at MIT (PDF).
By processing email in 20 minute
batches, when the sessions all add up over the arc of the day,
I find that I accomplish more in, say, one hour of three separate
20 minute sessions than I would have had I plowed on for an hour
When the stopwatch dings, I do
not expect to have finished "inbox zero" is a
fata morgana! And that's OK, because I have another email batch
session already scheduled (a few hours later, or five minutes
later. It's important to take a break, at the very least stand
up and stretch.)
Above all, because I am focussing
on email at my convenience, on my schedule, my attention
is no longer so fractured. I need not attempt to wrestle with
each and every email as it comes in; and of course, some emails
cannot or should not be answered immediately. I aim to dispatch
the average daily inflow. In other words, if, net of spam,
I receive an average of 30 emails per day, then I should be averaging
30 emails dispatched per day they need not be one and the
same emails. One day I might dispatch 50, and another day, 10.
The point is, there's no there there, as long as my email
account is working, barring volcanic explosions of a geological
nature, I'm probably never in this lifetime going to get to inbox
zero. What matters is maintaining a consistently adequate
The easiest way to keep track
of the process is to keep a running tally of all undispatched
emails as of the close of the last session of the day. (In Outlook
Express, for each folder of undispatched email, select all, go
to the main menu, click edit, select "Mark all unread,"
and it will automatically generate a tally for that folder.)
(And by the way, when the batching
session is done, I close my Outlook Express. I never, ever leave
it open. And would I never, ever, use any alarm for new email.)
I used to download email into an undifferentiated inbox at random
moments and, oftentimes, even as email was still downloading,
start answering willynilly. How about that for an attention-fracking
Now I begin each email session
as I would with a haul of paper mail: first, by taking
it all in; second, deleting the junk; and third,
organizing the correspondence I want to look at and/or answer
into precisely labeled files.
Files are easy to create and,
when emptied of their contents, to delete, or rename or whatever
a powerful tool within a tool. And I cannot overemphasize how
effective a simple and flexible filing system has been for helping
me focus and more quickly dispatch my email.
Of course, just like a paper
filing system, too many files can be counterproductive. For me,
the best filing system is one that holds 15 or fewer emails per
file. So if I have a bunch of files with one or two emails, I
might consolidate those; if I have, say, 50 emails in one, I
might to break that up into, say, two to four more files.
My filing system changes depending
on what I'm working on or dealing with in my life. This week,
nearing the holidays, it looks like this:
INBOX (this has whatever I'm going
to tackle now, preferably never more than 11 emails)
BACKLOG: TEXAS (anything to do with my book in-progress)
BACKLOG: FRIENDS & COLLEAGUES
(By the way, in case this looks
like a "to do" list, it isn't... quite... It's just
email. For my "to dos" I use Allen's
GTD system with a Filofax along with the brilliant flexibility
of usingthanks to Julia
Morgenstern for the idea little yellow PostIts for
noting next actions. )
If I can answer an email inside
of two minutes, I usually do. (That's a tactic from David Allen's
I might receive some gigazoodlesque
number of emails in a typical day, but after doing the DDO, which
takes only a couple of minutes at most, I am left with a tidy
number of uncategorized emails in the main inbox sometimes
as few as two or three. (I try to keep the active uncategorized
inbox at 11 messages, tops, because for me a longer list becomes
I do not respond to rude or certifiably ultra-weird messages,
and as with businesses that spew spam,* I add those email addresses
to my "block sender" list. Happily, there are not many
of those, and happily, once I've blocked them, with lightning
ease, I never see their emails again!
Out of sight, out of mind.
*(Phishers tend to use one-time
only emails; those I just delete.)
Many of my writer friends agonize
over emails (as well as social media comments) from trolls and
nuts and spammers. I tell them as I tell you, dear reader, it
really is this simple to make them all go away. The challenge
is, your ego, prompted by its its arch sense of justice, might
jump-up-and-down-insist on responding to them, but your
ego, if it's like most people's, including mine, should not be
in driver's seat here. Surely you have better things to do with
your time and attention than engage with emotionally stunted,
social-skill-challenged, and possibly dangerously disturbed individuals.
(If you lived in a big city, would you leave your kitchen's back
door open to the alleyway 24/7?)
If you relish unnecessary fights
and pointless thrills, well, as they say in Mexico, dios los
hace y ellos se juntan (God makes them and they get together.)
I prefer the Polish saying, Not my circus, not my monkeys.
Viva Moti Nativ!
(Seriously, I took Moti Nativ's Feldenkrais workshop, it was
Stopwatch ticking, after having done the DDO, then I prioritize
emails (and other related tasks as noted below), and then
I tackle them.
There's no magic formula here:
I might think about it for a moment or three, then decide what
should come first.
(Once dealt with, I archive each
email by year. Some people just delete them; in my repeated experience,
however, that is not a good idea.)
OUT THE SPAM FOLDER ONCE PER DAY
I check the spam folder once per day because that is precisely
about how often I find an important email in there. These days
floods of spam are coming from phishers (easy to spot for many
reasons, also because they vary their email addresses); those
I don't touch, I just delete them.
(I remain perplexed by correspondents
who do not check their spam folders. On the other hand, checking
too often wastes timesmall amounts, but they add up.)
6. APPLY &
ADJUST "SENDER FILTERS" AS NEEDED
I'm not talking about an app or programming or anything complicated.
By "sender filter," a concept I grokked an eon ago
but a term I first encountered in Cal Newport's Deep
Work, I mean some specific information on one's contact
page that, ideally in a kind and generous spirit, encourages
potential senders to not send email so that, for the few
emails that do squeeze through, I am able to respond quickly,
politely, and thoughtfully.
contact page includes a long lineup of sender filters: First, a newsletter signup (mainly for
those who want to know when I will be teaching a workshop or
post a new podcast); then it answers FAQs, such as "where
can I find your books?" (I am ever-amazed by that question
in this day of amazon and Google, but I do get such emails fairly
often); for book club inquiries; the best way to reach me for
media and speaking inquiries; answers to writerly questions ("how
to find a publisher," etc.); rights inquiries; press
kits including high res images; and finally...
... (few indeed seem to have
the attentional snorkel gear to arrive there at the bottom)....
... if someone still wants to
email me, he will find my email address.
Like many other writers, back
in pioneer days, once I had a live website showing my email address,
I found myself receiving so many messages from people seeking
my advice about / feedback on / encouragement of their writing,
it would have been impossible to answer them all individually.
As a solution, many authors have opted for what I think of as
"The Wall of Silence" no email address at alland/or
what seems to me a snotty-sounding third-person notice along
the lines of "Wiggy Blip is so famous and busy being fabulously
famous, he cannot possibly deign to acknowledge your email."
Cal Newport's various sender
filters conclude as follows I quote from his book, Deep
Work: "If you have an offer, opportunity, or introduction
that might make my life more interesting, e-mail me at interesting
(at) calnewport.com For the reasons stated above, I'll only respond
to those proposals that are a good match for my schedule and
Of course, some emails, even
from perfectly civilized and well-meaning people, do not merit
a response they presume too much, they're eye-crossingly
vague or, as in a few cases, they clearly neither expect nor
invite a response. But as for myself, because my own sender filters
work beautifully, my stance is that I will do my darnedest, most
reasonable best to answer everyone, whether family, friends,
students, literary colleague, or mysterious Albanian, who takes
the trouble to write to me a civilized email.
On occasion a sender blazes past
or perhaps never saw the relevant sender filter, so I reply with
the link or paste-copy the text of my long-ago posted answer
to their question. (For example, I am often asked by students,
friends, relatives, neighbors and utter strangers if I will read
their manuscript. Here's
my answer to that one.)
If you want to comment on this
blog, which I sincerely welcome, click
here and what you'll see the simplest of sender filters,
stating that I read but do not usually publish comments. It works
blazingly well. Trolls and their ilk took a hike, never to return!
(As for my fierce-looking writing assistant, I assure you, dear
reader, Uliberto Quetzalpugtl only bites cheese.)
UPDATE: For a good example of
a strong but both friendly and polite sender filter, see publishing
consultant and blogger Jane
Friedman's contact page.
FURTHER UPDATE: For a Groucho Marx-esque example of sender
filters by someone whose religious ideas seem to attract trolls
like bananas do fruit flies, see John Michael Greer's page for
his Druidical Order
of the Golden Dawn.
IT ALL INTO MOOOOOOOOOOOORE EMAIL!
Over the past year
and some I have freed up chunkoids of time and energy for email
my Facebook account, minimizing Twitter and LinkedIn (including
turning off email notifications), and closing this blog
to published comments.
In other words, I have reduced the number of channels for people
to communicate with me, funneling as many communications as possible
into ye olde email.
I tell everyone who asks, the
best way to find me is by email.
Yes, I receive more email as
a result, but interestingly, many of my "friends" who
were so chatty & likey on Facebook rarely if ever trouble
to send me email. I have also found that many of the younger
generation do not respond to email. Hmmm, also interesting!
(Have a nice life, kiddos!)
Well, at least we still have
telephones. But sorry, don't count on me to retrieve my voicemail,
I am too busy answering email!
(What about texting and Whatsapp?
Ask me again after I've lugged home my taxidermied hippopotamus.)
8. BE QUICK
& CLEAR, MY DEAR, BUT ADD DETAIL TO CUT THE CLUTTER
The emails I send myself have
a clear subject line and the text clearly calls for or implies
expected action or inaction. For example, some of the younger
generation in my family prefer to text rather than use email,
and getting them to answer an email, such has been my experience,
requires laser-like focus in this regard. Hence, subject lines
Re: Super Quick URRRRRgent Question
Re: Confirming dinner at at 9 PM this Saturday
What do I mean by "add detail
to cut the clutter?" Minimize the number of emails needed
to arrange things by politely making specific actionable proposals
and provide websites, addresses, phone numbers and any other
information that your correspondent might need, and hence avoid
further emails. For example, instead of blah blah blahing about
when and where to maybe kind of sort of meet for coffee, go ahead
and make a specific proposal, e.g., "How about if we meet
for coffee at 4:30 PM this Tuesday or, if you would prefer, 5:30
next Wednesday at Café Thus-and-Such, 123 Avenue ABC."
Cal Newport offers more detailed
advice about this brain power-saving email tactic on his blog,
Hacks and his book, Deep
9. WHEN CALLED
FOR, FOR HEAVENSSAKES, JUST APOLOGIZE (BRIEFLY)
THE END OF THE LAST EMAIL SESSION FOR THE DAY, REPEAT AFTER SCARLET...
It is a fact that for me, as
well as for everyone who uses email, night falls in this Theater
of Space-Time... and falls again, and again.... Funny how that
happens once every 24 hours... until it doesn't. I guess. In
the meantime, some emails fall through the cracks of all good
Anyway, as Cal Newport writes
in Deep Work,
"[I]n general, those with a
minor public presence, such as authors, overestimate how much
people really care about their replies to their messages."
Newport's bluntness may sound
cruel. I don't think it is; rather, he points to a cruel fact:
that even when surrounded by other people, in fundamental ways
we are each of us in this Theater of Space-Time alone. Writing
is a technology that permits us to send thoughts from one axis
of space-time to multiple others. And this is precisely why I
write books and why I read books, and why I welcome correspondence,
albeit in electronic form.
And no, I am not worried that
one day, should my one of my books be made into a movie starring
Brad Pitt, or something, I might need to raise the Wall of Silence,
or else bring on a bucket brigade of secretaries to cope with
cannon-hoses of incoming emails.
Why am I not worried, pray tell?
(1) Because my 10 point system
works splendidly well.
(2) Furthermore, should the need
arise, it would be a simple matter to add more sender filters
/ templates, and perhaps, now and then, an autoresponder.
(3) Moreover, I
need only note the numbers of smombies
I see on city streets to conclude that, alas, the world of those
of us who still have the cognitive focus to actually read the
sorts of literary books I write and to engage in thoughtful correspondence
is, and seems destined to remain, a cozy one.
And if I turn out to be wrong,
so what? Then I will get a secretary! In the meantime, I shall
make do with my writing
assistants (although, alas, with emails, those two are all