The Sisyphean Problem Of Email

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Advice that should be given to modern people considering marriage: “Before you marry, consider this, ‘Is this the person I’d like to watch stare at their phone for the rest of my and their life?”

In the Greek myth of Sisyphus, Sisyphus, as punishment for aspiring to immortality, is given the task to roll a boulder up a hill every morning only to have it roll back down every night. A grisly situation that, every morning, he must remedy by rolling the boulder back up the hill.

There are plenty of aphorisms about the digital human condition, many of them quite astute: “Email is a to-do list given to you by other people” is one of my favorites. So is the one at the beginning of this post. If you’d really like to drill down, “The problem with email is that it’s email” is up there, as long as you realize that email is just today’s go-to stand-in for all of human communication.

If you’re like most people in information technology, you could spend 16 hours of your day replying to email without even touching anything else. You could achieve the ludicrous construction of Inbox Zero, and still, the next morning, wake up to Inbox 276.

It’s overwhelming, and absurd, but for those of us who rely on that number to feel confident or useful, we start leak emailing. Answering an email in a taxi, or right before a meal or, the worst, after sex. You become the person whose phone is more alluring than other people, the person who’d rather have a digital conversation than a regular one. Because your phone is the closest form of drug, your job becomes what you do in your spare time and even in your most intimate moments. You are a textbook case of Existentialism.

In layman’s terms, you suck.

“Does the realization of the absurd require suicide?” Albert Camus asked in his own spin on the Sisyphean myth. “No. It requires revolt,” he answers. And no, setting up a douchey auto-reply highlighting how important you are, another textbook case of Existentialism, is not the answer. Every blogger who complains about email is just complaining about how popular they are. I’m at Inbox 46,761 — a success problem.

The revolt required in this case, before you spend six hours or more of your day in email, is to train people to not expect an answer. And to be okay with calling or finding some other method to get what you need if you don’t get a response. Otherwise you’re the guy sending an email from the toilet.

Step away from the rock.