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Bonus Post: An Author Who is Proud to Admit that he Sucks at E-Mail

August 7th, 2008 · 10 comments

E-mail Zero Strikes AgainE-Mail Zero

Once again I’m using Thursday to publish a bonus post about my E-mail Zero project. For the uninitiated, this short series questions the idea that all people should use e-mail and related technologies in the same way. It seeks out examples of alternative communication lifestyles.

Today, I’m happy to report that the venerable Merlin Mann from 43 Folders has recently published an article series on a similar topic. I wanted to point your attention to another E-mail Zero practitioner that Merlin recently wrote about: author Neal Stephenson.

I’m a Bad Correspondent

Here is a key excerpt from the author’s web site:

Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time…If I suspect that I might be interrupted, I can’t do anything at all.

Which leads to:

If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. [If I instead get interrupted a lot] what replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time…there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons.

And then the big finish:

For me it comes down to the following choice: I can distribute material of bad-to-mediocre quality to a small number of people, or I can distribute material of higher quality to more people.

What Does This Mean For You?

The big picture point: Ultimately, you gain respect and reward in this world for the hard things you do. Ask yourself this: what distractions disrupt your concentration? Does being constantly available by text message, or e-mail, or on Facebook make you better at being a student? Or does it make you worse? Do you really need to be that accessible?

The right answer differs for different people. But the one thing this series makes clear: not every communication technology is right for every person. Even if it seems like everyone is using it…

If you’re curious about the types of places such questions might lead you, consider this fact: I do not have — nor have I ever had — a Facebook account. And yet, mysteriously, I still have friends who know my relationship status and what movies I like.

Crazy. I know. But once you start asking the right questions, interesting answers shake loose…

(Photo by dampeebe)

10 thoughts on “Bonus Post: An Author Who is Proud to Admit that he Sucks at E-Mail

  1. Gideon says:

    I think the trick is, if you need to be on these systems for whatever reason (as I need to for work, etc.) is to keep in mind that they are for YOUR convenience, not other people’s. Whether it be my phone, text messages, email, etc. I view it all as for my convenience, not other people’s.

    So if I need big chunks of time, all those messages can just wait. If I can react then, I will (but not if I don’t feel like it.) The last thing any of us need is more tethers…

  2. Nic says:

    I agree with Gideon: I have e-mail, facebook, cellphone… but I’m not afraid to turn of my phone for the day (like I turn it off every single night) or not check my email if I don’t feel like it. New people might freak out, and start following up everything they send with a phonecall, but they quickly get used to it if they get to know the way I work.

  3. Study Hacks says:

    I think the trick is, if you need to be on these systems for whatever reason (as I need to for work, etc.) is to keep in mind that they are for YOUR convenience, not other people’s…

    Absolutely. I think Merlin Mann coined to term “time burglar” to capture the idea that someone can come in and redirect your time without your consent.

    The other point I was hoping to make is that for many people, it’s not necessary to keep up with every piece of popular social media software. I save a lot of time not twittering or facebooking, with little negative consequences.

  4. LP says:

    “[F]or many people, it’s not necessary to keep up with every piece of popular social media software…”

    The thing is, email is not merely a new trendy social media application. It is a widely used form of interaction that is rapidly replacing the phone as the preferred mode of business communication. That’s what makes the Email Zero idea so incomprehensible to me — it’s exactly the same as someone deciding, 20 years ago, to just stop communicating by phone and only respond to people who drive over to their house and knock on their door. Admittedly, some people are natural hermits, such as novelists, painters, composers, but this should not be hailed as a great way to become more efficient, for anyone with a job or a business to run. One of my bosses (also the owner of the business) is pretty much incapable of dealing with emails, and the fallout from his poor communication skills is incredible.

    Maybe it would be more sensible to distinguish between email, which is a widely-used way of communication information in the business world, and other social media like Facebook, which are used mostly for, well, social purposes?

  5. Nate says:

    After finally getting around to deleting and organizing my inbox, I am proud to say that it is completely empty. Whenever I check my email, I simply move e-mails into corresponding folders: Class-Related, Employment, Family, Friends, Finals, Important, Purchases, and Reply ASAP.

    Now if I can only check my email once a day.. that will be the next challenge.

  6. Study Hacks says:

    It’s exactly the same as someone deciding, 20 years ago, to just stop communicating by phone and only respond to people who drive over to their house and knock on their door.

    I don’t necessarily advocate having no e-mail, but am instead saying that for some people have very limited e-mail makes sense. I think the phone is a great analogy. Twenty years ago, if you were a CEO, for example, you would have a secretary screening your calls. When you were working on an important report you would not be interrupted. And even at the end of the day when she brought you your messages, she would have screened out all but the most important that you actually had to answer yourself. This would be the same, today, as having given your e-mail address to only a small number of people and only checking the inbox infrequently.

    An even better example: imagine being a student 20 years ago. You would be very hard to reach by phone. You could make calls from the phone in the hallway, but, otherwise, if someone wanted to reach you, they would probably be out of luck. For these students, the idea of bringing a phone with you to the library and having your friends call you throughout the evening would seem ludicrous. But this is basically what it’s like for a modern student to study on a WiFi-enabled laptop.

  7. Study Hacks says:

    Now if I can only check my email once a day.. that will be the next challenge.

    I’m working on a similar challenge myself…

  8. Stephanie says:

    Maybe it would be more sensible to distinguish between email, which is a widely-used way of communication information in the business world, and other social media like Facebook, which are used mostly for, well, social purposes?

    I’m not sure you can make this distinction. If I were to disconnect from Facebook entirely, I wouldn’t get invited to (or even be aware of) business and social events going on around me. Because many people are so reliant on Facebook, many events are planned and publicized solely on the site. Think of Facebook as the newest generation’s equivalent of email, the phone, or the housecall. For my generation, it has become difficult to function socially without it.

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