I guess old habits, as they say, die hard. Back in my 9 to 5 days, which were always in one office setting or another, I felt a strong desire to get things done. But only in the sense of being able to say that I had gotten the thing done. Using a red or black marker to make check marks or cross out the items on my to-do list, I felt a twinge of delight each time a task was completed. I didn’t care about the doing itself—the how, the why, the things I might learn from working on the project—I only wanted the satisfaction in having it done. I was striving to live in the completion phase without any understanding of how I got there. Nowhere was this joy of completion more evident than my email inbox. It became a personal point of pride that always delivered more pain than satisfaction: a race to the top that left me standing there, alone, underwhelmed, and waiting for the opportunity to do it again. I imagined that next time, maybe after a week-long vacation or holiday break with more emails to read and more responses to send, I would finally experience the high of slaying my inbox. But it never happened. Not once. And my need to push through emails like a bodybuilder rolling over a monster truck tire remains to this day in my psyche—years after it stopped being a job requirement.
Like dandelions popping up on cue after lawns are freshly mowed, my inbox receives several emails for each one that I open, read, respond to (in some cases), and ceremoniously delete. I allow myself to be taunted by them, unable to ignore their boldfaced type declaring an unread status. I simply must (for reasons unknown to me) mark all emails as read—but only after I’ve taken the time to read them. No cheating allowed! This, however, only results in a version of speed reading or, worse yet, cursory glances if the pressure feels strong that day. Once again I have skipped the process of thoughtful engagement in favor of half-hearted attempts for the sake of having them done. And before I’ve had the chance to become aware of this incessant Wack-A-Mole behavior, I realize that I have become my next-door neighbor: a man relentless in his pursuit of a perfect lawn who can be seen running back to his mower to chop the head off some unsuspecting yellow weed.
What seems almost laughable to me about this behavior is that my inbox brings me only those things that I truly enjoy. I often need to remind myself that this is no longer a work inbox filled with the bosses’ Monday ramblings, monotonous meeting agendas, or invitations to celebrate another co-worker’s birthday in the breakroom. Instead, this is a carefully curated inbox void of anything that does not serve me. If something manages to slip in that I may have inadvertently subscribed to, I feel no remorse in wielding the unsubscribe button. Moreover, if anything stops bringing me joy, then I remove that which is no longer a blessing but a burden. So why then, after all this careful consideration, am I not giving my love and attention to these emails? Why do I still see it as a task-oriented job and not the delight it offers me today? Is my mentality surrounding email as a compulsory duty doomed to prevail? Finally, is a clean inbox more important to me than the joy I can receive each time I am gifted something I feel confident in knowing I will enjoy (as long as I am giving it the attention it deserves)?
I know the tricks of the trade. Some people benefit by setting limits on their email usage, whether by assigning it to certain times of the day, putting time limits on their activity, or employing both or other similar actions. I’ve also thought it might be helpful to be even more discerning with what I receive so that my inbox appears less cluttered, but if I am being honest, these options feel like steps away from, not toward, freedom. I currently value and enjoy everything I am receiving in my inbox, and I don’t want to set limits on myself. I also don’t want to do away with email entirely. What I want is to be able to check my email without a dogged sense of urgency or the need for completion. I want to desire what’s there, no matter how many may pop up on a given day or how many might still be waiting for me. Most importantly, I want to be able to sit and be comfortable with an inbox that has things waiting for me—because these emails are those which I have allowed to come my way, and they are as good as any gift waiting to be opened. Surrendering to a full, unread inbox means that I allow myself to read these emails on a more relaxed timetable and decide for myself what in that moment is the best use of that time. It might be that in that moment what will bring me the most joy is to go for a walk, call my aunt in Florida, or pick up where I left off on my art journal. The emails can wait. I don’t need a firehose to put them out, because none of them are on fire. Unless I choose to abruptly delete them, these gifts will be waiting patiently for me. And the right time to open them will always be when I’m ready.
Once I’m able to do this, I will stop seeing these as a means to an end and begin enjoying them for what they are: a window to the world offering education, insights from those I respect, new curiosities, and things I might want to ponder or consider. What they are, in fact, are blessings to me and my personal growth in the form of electronic communication. It’s time I started treating them as such.