Monday, May 7, 2012

The Email Cleanse: Eliminating Digital Debt

So I put myself on a schedule.

The schedule itself is a work in progress, and for all those who asked how I did it...don't worry, the how-to post is coming soon! I feel a little more stable, a little less crazed, and more items are getting crossed off my to-do list as I learn how to manage my time in a way that's, well, manageable.

But still, this Saturday morning, right on schedule at 7:00AM, I started having that same panic attack because there was just so much to do and how on earth was I ever going to get it all done and what I am doing in the car on the way to the beach I have NO RIGHT TO ENJOY MYSELF AT A TIME LIKE THIS.

Clearly, the schedule wasn't enough. I had to dig a little deeper to find the source of all that anxiety.

I forced myself to stay in the car. I tried to focus on my family and forget everything else. The beach was beautiful, cold and empty--just the way I like it. Baby N toddled around flinging sand everywhere and chasing seagulls while Eva chased the tide in and out on the shoreline and J flew his kite so high we could barely see it through the glare of the sun. But still, something was nagging at me. I couldn't relax the way I wanted to. Something intangible was weighing on me, crushing me beneath it.

When we got home, and my sun-soaked kids crashed into their respective beds for naps, I sat down at my computer, sand still scattered over my wrists, and opened up my email accounts to "get a little work done" while they slept.

Combined, there were over 500 emails waiting for my attention.

Full disclosure: they didn't all pop up overnight. I'm notoriously terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion. Which, as a blogger, is beyond pathetic. But still, there it is.

I confess. I have a problem.

There are numerous factors contributing to my email delinquency. I won't bore you to death by going into them all. Suffice it to say: I have my excuses. Some of them are even quite valid.

Not all the emails are important, but some of them are. Some of them are the blogger equivalent of spam: boring press releases about issues I don't care about happening in areas I don't live in. Some of them are from websites I may or may not have signed up for, some are from friends, some are PR requests I actually want to read. Some are work-related. E's preschool sends 50 or so a day in their effort to preserve the environment (no comment on what this is doing to my sanity.) And the best ones are from you, dear Karma readers, commenting or asking questions or just saying hi.

Looking at those 500 emails, the oldest of which (from our financial advisor requesting action, no less) was dated December 2009, made me sick to my stomach. Of course I felt anxious and panicky all the time. I had way more than a ginormous to-do list to deal with; I had hundred and hundreds of messages needing my attention just lurking there, mocking me from behind a cute little cartoon mailbox.

That's when it hit me: having all those emails felt exactly like being in debt. The nagging, about-to-throw-up feeling. The inability to relax, ever, because how could you possibly with such a responsibility on your shoulders? A backlog of emails is the equivalent of digital debt. I owed people things. A lot of people. A lot of things. Even if it was just to hit "delete" or "unsubscribe" or type "thanks for thinking of me, but I'm unable to attend", those emails required something of me and until I paid all those debts back, I'd never be able to enjoy a beach day (or any other day) with my family again.

Being in digital debt feels a lot like being in financial debt: like struggling to breathe underwater. Worse, it leads to missed opportunities, hurt feelings, misunderstandings and the constant urge to apologize to everyone you run into because for sure one of those 500 emails is from them and they're pissed you haven't responded yet. And about to unfriend you. (But that's a different post.)

Last night I sat down at my desk with a mug of tea and a mission.Those emails? Had to go. I responded and deleted and unsubscribed. I apologized, over and over again. I crossed my fingers and hoped that the important people would understand. I prepared myself for the sting of rejection from the ones who wouldn't.

I have a problem. The first step is admitting it. The second step is never letting it happen again. (Is there a twelve-step program for email delinquency? I'd totally go to a meeting if there was...)So with all that said, if you got perhaps three or four or seventeen emails from me yesterday addressing topics spanning over 18 calendar months...sorry. And sorry, too, for the events that I've missed, the evites I never RSVP'd to, and the chain recipe thingies I never forwarded. 

I'm done with digital debt. I'm done opening my inbox with the same feeling of dread you might experience opening, say, the Diaper Genie or a sippy cup that's been in the backseat of the car for weeks. Email should be a way to connect, a way to communicate, a way to do business. Not a way to bury yourself so deep in anxiety you can't dig yourself out.

In a world largely driven by social media, it is far too easy to get caught in this kind of trap, of owing people responses and "likes" and tweets and retweets and reposts. There is enough going on in the real world to make us feel overwhelmed and powerless. There is enough stress and anxiety just caring for our families, and doing our jobs, and going to bed at night feeling like we lived the best we possibly could that day. Feeling enslaved by a blinking icon on a screen? Life's too short. I don't have the time.

Currently, there are 16 emails in my personal account and 36 in my work account. I feel like a new person. I feel like I can breathe again. I know there will be people who won't forgive me for my past transgressions, and others who won't believe that I can change. But there are others out there--and you know who you are--who will forgive me, and keep writing me new emails, and believe that I'm really and truly trying to figure all this out.

One email at a time.

So the next time we go to the beach? I won't be chasing the ghosts of emails past through my anxious mind.

I'll be chasing kites and seagulls and ocean waves with the people I love the most.


  1. A journey of a thousand miles is now a journey of a thousand emails, but it's still one step at a time, right?

    Good for you! Let me know how the unsubscribing goes - I find some sites refuse to take goodbye for an answer.

  2. My problem is that I read and deal and don't DELETE. So I have like 13000 e-mails, and a good chunk of them are Facebook useless updates. (As opposed to Facebook useful updates. Come to think of it, those don't exist). Yay for getting through the backlog!

  3. Fine. You convinced me. I'm doing it right now.