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.