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Not All Emails Are Created Equal

Interviews are a common part of the book publicity process, especially as you become better known as a writer. Between television, radio, print and podcasts, I ended up doing well north of 100 interviews about Digital Minimalism since its release last February.

Given this volume of appointments (which is actually modest compared to many authors), I arranged things with my publicity team at Penguin so that they could book interviews on my behalf. Using a service called Acuity, I specified what times I was available, and they then put interviews directly on my calendar during these periods, all without requiring me to participate in the scheduling conversations.

Viewed objectively, this setup shouldn’t have made a big difference in my life. Scheduling an interview takes around 3 or 4 back-and-forth messages on average. This adds up to somewhere around 300 or 400 extra emails messages diverted from my inbox.

When you consider that these scheduling threads were spread over six months, and that the average professional user sends and receives over 125 emails per day, the communication I saved with this setup should have been be lost in the noise of my frenetic inbox.

But it did matter. Not having to wrangle those scheduling emails provided a huge psychological benefit.

The observation that explains this discrepancy is that not all emails are created equal. In my experience, the cognitive toll of three or four back-and-forth scheduling emails, spread out over a day, is much greater than three or four standalone emails that each require, at best, a one-time reply.

The back-and-forth emails hurt more because they conflict with a social brain that has evolved to prioritize back-and-forth conversation with members of our tribe. When we send an email to someone and are awaiting their response, there’s a corner of cognitive real estate occupied by this ongoing transaction, nervous about the open loop, fueling a gnawing background hum of minor anxiety.

Rationally, we know it’s not crucial that we catch and respond to the next message in the exchange right away, but to our more primal circuits, honed on a deep historical scale that predates asynchronous communication, such distinctions are irrelevant.

Before I fall too far down a treacherous evolutionary psychology rabbit hole, let me step back to emphasize the general point at play in this example. When we think about email as an abstract digital information delivery service, we miss many of the subtle ways in which it causes more pointed miseries. If we want to get a handle on our current age of communication overload and knowledge worker burn out, we must first explore the specific manner in which this form of modern interaction clashes disastrously with our paleolithic brains.

15 thoughts on “Not All Emails Are Created Equal”

  1. Thanks Cal – in addition to limiting how many email I receives (through rules and other options), I make efforts not to send unnecessary emails. Not always easy, but I’d be hypocritical if I complained of all the emails I receive from others but did nothing to limit the amount I send out.

  2. I agree that an email that we are awaiting a response to always occupies a corner of our mind. I was once a part of the editorial team of a college magazine, and as an editor, I was responsible for scheduling interviews for all the articles I was in charge of. Though I liked the work when I signed up for it, I was always troubled by this seemingly minor responsibility, and it affected many aspects of my work. I decided to not continue in the team for the next edition. When I explained my reasoning to the chief editor of the magazine, he found it amusing and asked me for the actual reason for my quitting. To find out that there is an evolutionary explanation is quite liberating!

  3. I use Acuity too. It definitely cuts down on the back and forth since time is valuable for everyone. Some people who don’t use Acuity or similar services can be put off by sending them your calendar. I’ve found by prefacing it with “I’ve included a link to my calendar so you can choose the time most convenient for you.” it helps ease the transition. ?

    I’m a big fan of reducing unnecessary back and forth emails. My thought process with each email is “How can I make it easy for this person to respond or take action?” I’ve learned to be specific and direct with questions and include necessary information for making a decision in links.

    • Your point RE making actions required and providing the info needed is a key one Melissa – too often people send emails to get something off their plate mentally, burdening the recipient with the task of having to think of and ask follow-up questions! This has given me something to think about.

  4. Acuity has save me a lot of time as a professor. I post availability as well as the link for students to schedule an appointment for themselves. If I have not posted availability that is convenient for them, they can then send me an email with their available windows for me to choose from. I also use Acuity to schedule meetings with colleagues. Like Melissa, I also preface my message with a tag similar to hers. Works like a dream!

  5. I’m in higher ed too, and I’ve been using a similar product called Calendly for a couple years now. It’s a godsend, making the scheduling process easier for all involved. I’m also going to steal Melissa’s elegant preface.

  6. When I was reading this, I remembered a similarity between emails and Face Book. When I was using Face Book, I remember posting a status, and waiting for likes and replying to a comment and waiting for a reply back, and I remember specific moments where I was thinking about whether I had gotten any likes or replies and that did hold a space apparently and this blog post summed it up perfectly.

  7. Emails are the best ways to communicate with each other professionally. Most of the professionals make use of Email to provide some useful information about their website or something relevant.

  8. So good. I wish there was a digital minimalist blog/section for lawyers at large law firms. I saw your talk with Morgan Lewis. Us associates constantly receive e-mails from the higher ups and much of it pertains to the work we receive. Our timeliness in responding also determines alot. The philosophies of Deep Work/Digital Minimalism worked so much better for me when I was a judicial law clerk in federal court and was only responsible for getting out judicial opinions. Now I have to communicate with Partners of the firm all the time and things get dropped into my lap constantly. Ok vent session over. Any biglaw lawyers here?

  9. I am also in higher education. As I’ve placed rules and parameters around my personal email usage, I need to start applying the same principles to my work email as well. Thanks for this reminder.

  10. Dear Cal,

    Many thanks for this useful post (and for this blog in general).
    I have a question which perhaps is not at the top of your interest, since I see you are far more concentrated on competence and knowledge than on “execution”, but I would really have your opinion about time-management in the process of writing a paper.
    I am constantly facing the feeling that I need three, five, even ten times the amount of time I calculated initially in order to finish an academic paper.

    I am obviously doing something wrong.
    I suppose part of the problem is that I am not so strong yet on the “practice” part, so my competence is not so high as I would need.
    But beside that, is there any strategy I can follow,of the same kind you used to give to pass an exam?
    Like: finish a whole draft and revise it later?
    I tend to tacle one problem at a time, one paragraph after another, and I’m beginning to think this is an error.



    • I used to struggle with this as well, but my writing has been getting much faster the past couple of years, for two reasons. First, I started following academic writing advice to separate drafting from revising (so yes, write a “shitty first draft” before revising). Second, I did the online writing program called “Unstuck” (by Kel Weinhold), which helped me see how perfectionism was slowing things down and which gave me specific strategies to speed up my writing (and break it into smaller chunks). You can find more info about the program on “The Professor Is In” website. They’re launching another program called “The Art of the Article” (haven’t tried it yet), which is more academic-article focused than academic-writing focused, but I’m guessing both would be worthwhile. Honestly, I’d start with Unstuck if you’re feel that your writing is slow.


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