Phillip Smith

Longing for the days of snail mail: a guide to slow e-mail

What would happen if you took the concepts of the slow food movement and applied them to the chronic cognitive overload lifestyle that many of us lead? Well, you'd get the slow e-mail movement of course. What's the slow e-mail movement? Well, if I were to put it in my own words: it's a 2-step program for teaching yourself, and your peers, to take it a bit easier on the send & receive and reply buttons (achieving instant karmic balance points in the process!)

To that IBM manager that supposedly appends "Read your mail just twice each day. Recapture your life's time and relearn to dream. Join the slow email movement!" I say: not enough!

My recipe:

  • Read your e-mail just once a day.
  • More importantly, respond to your e-mail only once a day.

I've been a member of my self-prescribed slow e-mail movement for six months now. I was always a bit slow on the e-mail, but the guideline to respond less, in addition to checking it less, is what made all the difference. Now, I'm usually able to glide through a day without worrying too much about the inbox, and mostly focused on the work that my clients are paying me for.

Why do it? Well, for me, it's all about the promise I've made to my clients to go above-and-beyond -- and this is the program that helps me deliver that commitment. I needed a way to clear my mental space for "real workTM," which is usually activities involving at least 3-hours of distraction-free application of my mental energy and full attention. This is the secret for how I can consistently get into the "flow"

There are some other great side benefits of the slow e-mail movement:

  • Pace: After a while, the natural rhythm takes over and other people start to think "hey, if Phillip can ignore his e-mail for a whole day, I bet that I can too!"

  • Consistency: If you've ever e-mailed me, you've probably noticed I always get back to you within 48 hours (and probably less than 24 on most occasions); and your e-mail never sits un-answered for a week or more.

  • Attention: While I'm ignoring your e-mails, rest assured that I'm applying that attention to solve your most pressing problems!

  • Sanity: let's face it, between project notifications, SVN commit messages, Facebook updates and invitations (I've never been so popular!), and the usual deluge of e-mail-based conversations, there is just way too much information to distract me during the day (from doing "real workTM").

So, in summary, what I do is: get my inbox emptied once -- in the morning (both reading and responding) -- and then forget about it until the next day. I also apply a "Before today" filter to my inbox, so that I'm only seeing messages from yesterday or before, which helps me to be consistent with always replying a day later.

Do I cheat? Sure I do. At lunch or when I'm searching for e-mail on a project, etc. There are always exceptions. But, what I try not to do is answer those e-mails. As far as your experience of my committment to slow e-mail goes: I'm a saint.

Still need convincing? How about these selling points:

  • It's easy: all you have to do is be consistent (and what's easier than that?)

  • It's fun: there's nothing like making your friends, family, or better yet -- clients! -- wait

  • It's simple: just sit back and relax and remember that the world turned before you and I were addicted to e-mail

That's it folks, it's that easy. You too can join the slow e-mail movement! Pledge your e-mail chastity in the comments below.

(P.S. I haven't read the book "In praise of slowness" linked above -- so, if you have, please let me know)


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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