A psychoanalyst and email metadata walk into a bar…

In the compilation of essays, The Writing Life, Annie Dillard writes the oft-cited quote — “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” In this essay, she continues:

What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order — willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.

For some, their record-keeping of the day-to-day is in a journal — some tattered notebook housed next to the bed. I’ve never been able to carry this discipline myself. This is not to say I haven’t tried. In fact one point of continuity on all my most recent moves between cities has been finding a seemingly brand-new Moleskin while packing up boxes. Usually purchased in response to some kind of heartbreak, the first few pages are long-winding meanderings about the crisis in question, waxing attempted eloquence and the necessity to learn from what just happened. Typically, the first or second entry also includes some kind of self-motivational speech. You know, something about the importance of marking time in this way. Then– after a few more entries– the pages return to blanks and the journal becomes covered by books, never to be penned again.

In a lovely essay on the reasons for not writing a journal, Zadie Smith ends by noting the one place where her life is chronicled with regularity… email:

When it comes to life writing, the real, honest, diaristic, warts-and-all kind, the only thing I have to show for myself — before St. Peter and whomever else — is my Yahoo! email account, opened circa 1996 and still going. In there (though I would rather die than read it all over) is probably the closest thing to an honest account of my life, at least in writing. That’s me, for good and bad, with all the kind deeds and dirty lies and domestic squabbles and bookish friendships and online fashion purchases. . . . When I am dead, if my children want to know what I was like in the daily sense, not as a writer, not as a more-or-less presentable person, but simply the foolish human being behind it all, they’d be wise to look there.

With Smith’s essay in mind, I recently did a little digging on my own email. I started by downloading email metadata for both my personal (opened circa 2004) and work (2010) accounts. I was amazed at how a few columns… Date, To: and From: … could bring back such rich memories. After all, behind those traces are stories of career ambitions, love interests, existential crises, and the general sharing of lives. But while we can learn a lot in this kind of close-up examination, we might also garner lessons only visible from a far. If Dillard is right that schedule is ‘skafolding,’ a ‘blurred and powerful pattern’ in the aggregate, then seeing this structure from a distance can also lend insight.

And so, even though I have already received grief for spending free time analyzing metadata with statistical software (cough. . . Lauren. . . cough)… without further ado, here are some findings:

1. Monthly peaks and the potential of burnout

It was Spring of 2013. I was tired. I had been teaching at Hope for a bit under 3 years, and was getting ready to head to London to teach a May term with 15 students. Having just finished my third-year professional review, I tried frantically to manage my semester courses, push ahead on some research, consult with a couple companies, and prepare the students I would be taking overseas. Looking at my email over the years, I was unsurprised that April 2013 was my biggest email month of all time. But what happened after? I fell from peak to valley, and it took some time to recover. While I wish I could say that this was an intentional recapturing of time back from the jaws of an inbox monster, the truth is I was burnt out. We must remember we play a long-term game. Our management of the day to day should reflect this intentionality.

2. Email and the social & creative lives we (don’t) live

Previously, I wrote of the importance of single-task focus and the unfortunate brain chemistry side-effect that we get a hit of endorphins for multi-tasking behavior that is negatively related to getting things done. In examining my emails by days of the week, one of my takeaways is that I contribute to my own lack a lack of time for creative and productive work by hopping into reactive tasks (email) before proactively defining them. Looking at my mornings, especially on days freed up for creative work (Mon, Wed. morning, Fri), I spike email high in the morning before hopping into necessary focused research or writing. Sadly, in a tit-for-tat world of email exchange, such early pushes only increase my greater need for responses later on.

Specific to social life — time with those we love — I was struck in looking at my evenings, While my email outflow does drop off, this dip rarely at 5, and I usually have some kind of steady stream until 10. What about you? Do you really find time to pull away our need for constant communication? Looking at my data, I can see how being constantly on (not having a real drop-off of email at the end of the work day) leaves me commonly present but rarely fully engaged. We are scattered across many places on the digital landscape.

3. Defining an ideal day.

All this data got me thinking about what might be more ideal. While I am not fully there yet, included below is a sketching of what my typical email curve looks like, and how three small changes might change this digital day-to-day.

What are those three changes?

  1. Keep work requiring real focus early in the day before reactionary email begins, pushing back a real email start time as necessary.
  2. Batch times for focused email response (set number of peaks), with gaps between these times determined by response time norms in your work world. For example, I can get away with three focused email response times because a half of day lag is not unexpected.
  3. Cultivate a intentional drop of heavy email in the evenings by having a focused email response at the end of the day, and creating space from my phone. Remember, a lot can be handled tomorrow.

What might my 2025 email metadata look like? Hopefully more peaks and valleys, and as a result, more time for focused creative work and the people I love.

How do you spend your days, Dillard asks? How might you better spend your life?