Inbox Confessions from a Social Media Junkie

confessions.jpgLast night I stayed up later than my body wanted me to, doing little more than refreshing my inbox. Click. No new mail. Click. No new mail. Click. No new mail. Click. Junk mail. Click. No new mail. Click. Letter from a friend. Read. Keep as new. Click. No new mail.

It’s an addiction. Responding takes energy, but just checking to see if I’m being thought of only takes a click.

Having just returned from 11 days out on the East Coast in quasi-vacation mode, I’m behind on my inbox. There are about 50 messages that I intend to reply to, many of which could be handled in less than two minutes, but I don’t want to do that. I want to sit with each one and give it my full attention. I want to respond with as much time and focus as I would if I were looking the person in the eye. Many of these emails come from people that I can’t easily grab a coffee date with, so I want my response to genuinely convey my appreciation for them and my commitment to our relationship. Two minutes is not enough for that.

As a result, those emails sit in my inbox unanswered for days because I’m not ready to redirect my attention. I’ll usually flush that folder to zero about once a week, giving everyone the lengthy responses I believe they deserve, but let’s face it: seven days is not a quick enough response time for most people to feel loved.

While I was clicking refresh on my inbox last night, I was also refreshing my twitter application, looking for other lost souls who were awake at 1am and trying to feel less alone. But twitter shocked me out of my daze when it stopped giving me tweets and started giving me error messages:

Twitter returned a "bad request" error. This happens when you exceed 70 requests per hour. Avoid running other Twitter applications or refreshing too frequently.

Am I really that bad?

For someone who resents the idea of responding to emails in less than two minutes or five sentences, I sure do adore a communication platform that limits me to 140 characters or less. Why? Because with Twitter, I can only type 140 characters, and people can only type 140 characters back to me. It’s the extra lite version of blogging, email, and phone calls, and therefore I am not able to use it as coffee date substitute. Sense of responsibility removed.

Let’s take inventory. I have 205 friends on Facebook. I have 124 friends on MySpace. I have 117 professional contacts on LinkedIn. I share my most personal writings with my 113 closest friends on a private network. There are 109 blogs in my “always read” folder. I follow 56 people religiously on Twitter. I realize that these numbers may seem low compared with some social media hounds, but here’s my commitment: (with the occasional exception of blogs,) these are all people I actually care about and am genuinely connected with. My networks are valuable to me and I fight to keep them that way. Because of this, those numbers seem absurdly high to me.

Meanwhile, I habitually leave the ringer off on my cell phone because I can’t stand small talk or interruptions. I also haven’t been available by instant message in over four years. If you need my attention immediately, I’ll respond to a text message (direct twitter messages have the same effect — but you have to be one of my Religious Fifty-Six for that to work). If you need my attention within an hour or two, email is best. But if I don’t feel like your email requires an ultra-quick or immediate response, it might get circulated into my “respond when I have adequate time” folder, and we already know how that works.

The exception to all of these is always work. I’ll answer my phone for clients and contractors. I’ll respond to their emails right away. I’ll even use instant messaging if it’s for the good of the project. You can see where my priorities are.

But when I’m not being paid for fast responses, I like to handle things in batches. I don’t do dishes as they get dirty; I wait until my sink is full and then I throw on my ipod and dance around my kitchen until it’s clean again. To me, that’s far more satisfying. I’m one of those focused passionate types who’ll naturally spend an entire day only walking, reading, writing, researching, coding, blogging, talking with a friend, or staring at the ocean. And if I’m extra lucky on those days, I’ll remember to stop and get lunch before 4pm.

Timothy Ferriss, in the Four Hour Workweek, recommends only checking and responding to email once a week, and using an autoresponder to let people know that this is how you function. Unnecessary emails and obsessive data hunger fall away.

I could see this working for a world traveler, but for a computer-bound web worker? Would that even be possible?

Or would it be embracing my natural system and ditching compulsive behavior?

This thought is so radical I think I need to go browse my inbox for awhile for comfort…

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6 Responses to “Inbox Confessions from a Social Media Junkie”

  1. jenks Says:

    you know…. i listened to a recording of the presentation the 4 hour workweek dude gave at sxsw, and i was totally unimpressed. a 4-hour workweek, and all the associated techniques for achieving one, are of greatest appeal to those people who do not enjoy their work. he checks his email once a week so that he can spend the rest of the time doing stuff he likes, like travelling to exotic places or base-jumping or practicing kung fu or whatever. and if that’s what you want to do with your time, then yes, checking email once a week is for you. as someone who was a breakdancer, and part of a vaudeville circus troupe before i’d ever bought a domain name, i got the whole do-ridiculous-shit-with-my-life thing out of the way, and now what i genuinely want to be devoting my time to are things like the development of innovative concepts for communication and engagement, facilitating creative collaborations, and producing events and festivals. like…. i derive pleasure from the process of making these things happen (and that’s pretty rare, cuz usually i hate things that aren’t instantly gratifying) but to limit the allotted time i get to spend on these things to just once a week, to me would be a punishment, as opposed to a liberation.

    on the other hand, feeling compulsively attached to the computer is not the way to go either. i think the bottom line is to just be more conscious of what you enjoy doing vs. just rotely pressing the button out of some pavlovian habit. not that i’ve necessarily figured out how to do that–but i’m positive it does not involve limiting what i ENJOY doing to once a week.

  2. Koan Says:

    On a couple of occasions in 2006, I had a serious backlog – 50+ -of personal emails that I wanted to respond to, fully and comprehensively – but couldn’t. The longer they sat unanswered – the worse I felt about it. In the end, wracked by guilt, I composed a “holding pattern” email – boilerplate text, explaining why I wanted to reply, but couldn’t, just then, and hoping they’d understand if the fuller reply was delayed.

    Impersonal? Maybe. But I hit “reply” to each of those individual emails, typed “Hi [Name of recipient],” and pasted in the boilerplate – which included the confession that yes, this *was* a boilerplate answer. And then sent them.

    Virtually everybody responded, over the next day or two, with an “I understand – I know you’ll get back to me when you can”… and then proceeded to write more.

    What I took from this was the lesson that people are much more forgiving and understanding of peaks and troughs in communication than we might give them credit for. Email is asynchronous – and when I was finally able to give each reply the attention it deserved, our relationships were as strong as ever.

    What was most humbling was the significant percentage who also said “take it easy on yourself – rather than let my email add to your weight of responsibility, don’t stress yourself over answering it – we’re still friends”.

  3. Chris Says:

    Just happened to be reading 43Folders post today on a similar subject.

    http://www.43folders.com/2008/01/01/reevaluating-your-online-commitments

  4. Kylie Says:

    Note to self: Send Sarah emails as often as humanly possible.

    Personally, I wind up annoying myself by leaving work and then immediately going home to…do what? Turn on the computer and check Facebook, LinkedIn, WomenCo, etc….

    Maybe I should read some f’ing Rousseau or something, and he’d teach me about the strict difference between public and private life. My private life is seriously failing me.

    ~Kylie

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  6. Heimbrecht Says:

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