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The Dreadful Tedium of Email

How much of your day do you spend on activity that doesn’t contribute to making a significant impact?

You should measure your time. If you do, chances are you’ll be amazed at how much time you spend on email. It’s necessary for conducting business but similar to social media, it can be a distraction.

I can’t think of anything in my daily business activity that is more tedious and superficial than email. Typing is a close second. Bring me a neural interface!

I spent a few minutes talking with a friend who is translating the New Testament into the Moi language. He mentioned his practice of time management, noting he could tell me exactly what he worked on 20 years ago on a specific day.

He measures his progress toward a grand and specific goal. No doubt email is an insignificant part of his timekeeping records.

Not long ago, a dear friend (with whom I study the Bible and share life with deeply) received a diagnosis of brain cancer. Within a week of his diagnosis, he underwent surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible and is now undergoing occupational and cognitive therapy.

If you received a diagnosis like that, how would it change your priorities? As a friend, how do you think it would change your perspective, especially about how you spend your time?

More than ever, even the smallest things matter because time may be short. My friend is longing to get back to normal, to work, to the family. He will not be saying, “I wish I had more time to answer email.”

Substitute whatever life activity you want in the place of email that keeps you from doing work that matters. Television. Facebook. There are too many to list.

In “Footprints on the Moon,” a short book I received from Seth Godin, he writes, “Every moment we spend, we spend forever, and that investment deserves to have a purpose.” (Note, the book isn’t for sale. It was a gift for participants in one of his seminars).

It affirms a recurring theme: Life is meant to be lived by design, with purpose, not by chance. Our choices must be intentional, mindful that our activities, even the smallest ones, serve a greater purpose.

My perspective has changed and continues to evolve as I focus on choosing what matters. Beginning today, I’m going to spend less time answering and sending email, and more time in meaningful communications.

I encourage you to do the same. Here’s how I’m going to start:

  • I’m going to delete 10% of the emails cluttering up my inbox every day until I reach zero.
  • I’m going to unsubscribe from lists that don’t directly contribute to my work or add meaning to my life.
  • I won’t spend time searching through forwarded email threads (along with the signature of everyone on the thread) to find the one tidbit of information the sender thought was important. 
  • I’ll choose dictation over typing, to ensure my thoughts are clear.
  • I’ll call you to discuss the answer to your question. (If your policies are to have everything documented in writing — please feel free to type up notes after our conversation).

Email distracts you and me from getting real work done, from creating new ideas, from the creativity and tension that comes from discussing the work we do, from being changemakers who make a difference. It’s a means to our end, not an activity that should consume our days.

Time is too valuable, and life is too precious to spend it on email. 

Leaving a legacy and creating impact happens when you spend your time doing what matters. Living intentionally and by design demands we make choices that create meaning, not doing busy work. Starting now, choose wisely!

If you sent me an email recently, hold tight. I’ll reply after I finish the important work.

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