Emails Overload, Newsletters & Impostor Syndrome

Laetitia@Work #1

Happy New Year everyone! 

I’m very happy to start 2020 (and the new decade) with this newsletter. More than 700 of you subscribed...and I needed you all to help me actually get started. Thank you!

Books, Door, Entrance, Culture, Library, Knowledge

I am both thrilled and intimidated by this new format that is the newsletter. Never before had I pushed my content so “in your face” directly into your inbox… and this is exactly the subject of this very first issue. I like the idea of a mise en abyme: writing a newsletter about writing newsletters. Almost dadaesque.

I’ve written many articles and ebooks over the past 4 years (a lot of which about the future of work). I’ve even had two books published (both in French: Du Labeur à l’ouvrage & Faut-il avoir peur du numérique ?). And yet the idea of sending a weekly newsletter to subscribers seemed alien to me. It’s not quite the same. It’s more personal and it’s based on a direct contact with readers (who even trusted me with their email address!). So here’s why I’m only launching a newsletter now.

Emails are a curse. Why add to it?

Many of us spend up to 6 hours A DAY reading, sorting and writing emails. I personally do not have a healthy relationship with my email inbox. It causes me constant anxiety. No matter how much time you spend at it, you have to start again the following day. And the day after. It’s a bit like working on an assembly line. It has a pace of its own that you do not get to choose and that you have no control over. If / when you slow down, you may put others in trouble. You will have to catch up and spend twice as much time at it to be in sync again. 

One thing that works exactly like emails is the dirty laundry basket. You may choose to “rebel” and stop doing the laundry for a few days… but that won’t stop your family from putting more dirty laundry in the basket every day (and sometimes perfectly clean items too!). You’ll just end up with a mountain of dirty laundry that will have to be cleaned, hung, folded and sorted at some point. There are apparent limits to the comparison, obviously. With laundry, the trick is to share the workload with the rest of the household (I’ve failed so far but I haven’t given up hope) whereas your email inbox is yours only. Unless you have AI tools or a personal assistant, it’s hard to delegate. Delegating emails is a status symbol reserved to the few.

So if you can’t delegate and you can’t choose your own pace, then you’re trapped. In many ways zero-inbox people are slaves to their emails! They basically let their inbox dictate their work days. I’ve never wanted to be one of them. For me work is about producing something, i.e. writing something new, or preparing a talk, for example.

Emails also embody the “crisis of cognition”. “Our brains simply have not kept pace with the dramatic and rapid changes in our environment — specifically the introduction and ubiquity of information technology,” writes neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley. Our “ancient” brains are not equipped to deal with so many emails.

Indistractable author Nir Eyal says at least 50% of all our emails are unnecessary, purely and simply redundant. Also, the more we send emails, the more we’ll receive new ones. And so like Cal Newport before him, Nir Eyal is a “deep work” champion. He recommends strategies to protect our concentration: delegating, using ad blockers, blocking notifications, allocating specific time slots to emails, sorting between urgent and non urgent and always letting non urgent emails “simmer”, “marinate” for a while.

Up to now I’ve sort of found a “system” with my “inbox 1,400 unread”. Most emails would “marinate” for a long while. I would just choose to spend less time on emails than others. Yes, some emails might go unanswered...but if it’s really important, people would send me another message.

Then my husband convinced me I had to become more professional about it. The system he recommended consists in splitting your inbox into three buckets: “today”, “yesterday” and “legacy”. The idea is that unless they are urgent (and short), “today” emails must wait. “Yesterday” emails are those you deal with on a given day, so you know before you start how many emails you have to answer each day. “Legacy” is when you’re not fast enough. This method has a name: Yesterbox. I will refine it by adding another bucket for “newsletters” which I want to read. That way, I’ll have a mailbox full of interesting stuff to read whenever I have a bit of reading time on my phone.

Newsletters and the impostor syndrome

Only recently have newsletters become a constant source of interesting reading material. I’m unsure how long I’ve been following newsletters like Azeem Azhar’s Exponential View, MIT’s fwd: Economy, and O’Reilly’s Next Economy. More recently I’ve subscribed to Dense Discovery, Brain Pickings, Behavioral Scientist, The Profile, Femstreet. I’ve also added a few French-language ones, like Plumes with Attitude, Les Glorieuses and La Mutante. I also receive Pocket’s selection of (often remarkable) articles. And Medium’s selection, notably the Elemental collection

Newsletters used to be commercial pollution, they’ve somehow become the future of media. This transformation occurred quietly over the past 3 to 4 years. New startups like Substack, which was founded in 2017, believe newsletters will continue to grow and writers with a community of engaged readers can ask their readers to pay a monthly subscription for exclusive content. Andreessen Horowitz partner Andrew Chen, who took a seat on the Substack board, is adamant “we’re living in a pivotal time in the history of mass communication — what we believe is the golden age of new media”. If newsletters are indeed a model for the future of media then it will get better and better and more excellent newsletters will emerge in the future. 

My reaction to this: It’s great news for readers, but is it great news for writers? There is more than I can read on a daily basis. And super interesting stuff too. Enough to make me want to stay put and absorb passively all this amazing content. What’s the point of adding another newsletter when there are already so many great ones out there? That’s the mild impostor syndrome I was referring to earlier in this newsletter. 

True impostor syndrome is when you doubt your accomplishments and have a persistent internalised fear of being exposed as a fraud. Despite external evidence of your competence, you remain convinced you do not deserve all you have achieved (that’s the Wikipedia definition). What I have is a mild version of this that translates to the “what’s the point” question. What’s the point of writing something that’s already been written somewhere, and probably better?

I’m working hard to overcome this hurdle. One thing that I’ve found very helpful is this quote by André Gide: “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” I also read this in Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist: “Nothing is original, so embrace influence, school yourself through the work of others, remix and reimagine to discover your own path.” I’ve found that idea to be truly liberating.

What’s interesting is not ideas per se, but the way you combine them in your own unique way. What’s interesting is intertextuality, i.e. the shaping of a text’s meaning by another text, the relation of texts with other texts, how they form a web of influence and connections: allusions, quotations, pastiche, influence, plagiarism... Writing is like life: what matters is the human connections you create. You need to learn to accept the idea of taking up some space and interacting with others. 

On January 8, 9 and 10, I’ll be in France in Val d’Isère for Les Napoléons, an event whose main theme this year is Ubiquity. My talk will be about the “Ubiquity fallacy”: although you can work anywhere with a laptop and a wifi connection, geography has never mattered more than today!

Publications:

My other works related to this week’s newsletter:

Other related content:

  • 🎙️ FOMO Samiens: Nir Eyal on making “indistractability” a habit. FOMO Sapiens is a great podcast with Patrick J. McGinnis, creator of the term FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). How do people “choose from among the many opportunities in their busy lives and find the courage to miss out on the rest?”

  • 🎙️ The Anxious Achiever: interesting HBR podcast about mental health at work. “Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness (...). We desperately need better models for leadership and a more holistic view of mental health.”

Miscellaneous:

  • 🗞️ “#MeToo’s Legacy” (Nicole Torres, Harvard Business Review, January-February 2020 Issue): it’s been 2 years since the allegations against Harvey Weinstein triggered the #metoo movement about harassment in the workplace. A lot has happened since, including a pernicious anti-metoo movement suggesting #metoo has gone too far. And yet, this article explains, “false allegations are are (…) men are more likely to be victims of sexual assault than they are to be wrongly accused of it.

  • 🗞️ “Self-Driving Trucks Won’t Kill Millions of Jobs” (Paris Marx, Medium): the automation of the trucking industry has been largely overblown. A lot of jobs can’t be automated (yet). Last-mile logistics is in fact a human-intensive sector.

  • 🗞️ “Is Sweden the best place to lose your job?” (David Crouch, BBC): Sweden designed a system to “unlock [people’s] potential and get [them] into a better job than before.” The country’s unique “transition system” is a nationwide private welfare service for the unemployed.

  • 🎙️ (in French) Vlan! #113 “Revenir au temps long”. A fascinating interview with geo-historian Christian Grataloup on the story of Sapiens conquering the globe.

  • 📚 In the Garden of Beasts (Erik Larson, Crown, 2011): a riveting and thrilling book of nonfiction. Larson tells the story William E. Dodd becoming America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany and remaining unable to convince isolationist (and often antisemitic) America to take a stand against Nazis.

  • 📽️ “The Two Popes”: this film directed by Fernando Meirelles centres on the relationship between Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), soon-to-be elected Pope Francis, and the ageing Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins). It shows their ideological and personality differences as well as their theological debates. The film shows a church affected by many scandals and somewhat out-of-touch with the outside world. And you get to see a lot of Rome and the Vatican! My only criticism is that Francis is actually less modern than the film implies: not much has changed in the Catholic Church (there still are no female or gay priests, far from it!) and there isn’t more transparency on sexual abuse scandals. You can watch it on Netflix.

Happy new year again! Let’s create intertextuality together!

Laetitia

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