The last rays of the sun transfigured the water tower, the freeway overpasses, and the tops of the pins on the bowling alley sign, as I sat at my computer in an emptied office. I hadn’t noticed the sky darkening as I tapped away on my keyboard, compulsively shift-tabbing the cursor, re-reading, revising, substituting words, deleting phrases, and reorganizing paragraphs.
I still didn’t notice how late it was when my wife called me up wondering where I was and what I was doing, if I was okay. It was only as I dumbly attempted to explain to her why I was still at work that I recognized my folly. I was deep in creative flow, composing a short essay. I thought it was pretty good, and it was nearly complete. It had some humor, it had a detailed history of past work on the subject, and it had what I think are some promising ideas for the topic moving forward. Sounds great, right? I haven’t yet disclosed a key detail, which is that it was about to be sent in reply to an email I received with a simple question asked in a single sentence.
My wife recommended I not hit send on that email just then, and I took her advice. It is still in my drafts. It was not all for naught, though. As I closed up the office and drove home from work, I was finally ably to put a name to a needed work productivity goal (and probably professional relationship goal, but I hate thinking about relationships) around what I think must be a rather unique personal challenge - I should not be writing The Great American Email.
Getting lost in composing detailed narratives and obsessively reworking sentences is within my full purview here in nowhereland, but it is usually not all that helpful or productive in an email at work. So, if I recognize that I am starting to write an extensive email, I need to take pause and figure out if it should actually be a phone call, an item for a meeting, a note that I don’t share with anyone yet, a sentence or two summary, or if it really needs to be anything at all. After all, I know people skip or delete my emails, sometimes maybe I can skip or delete things, too.
I need to recognize that sometimes I just like reading myself writing - case in point, this very website, of which I may well be the only reader. Please don’t try to like, subscribe, or leave a comment, because none of those things are possible here. (Well, I guess “subscribe” is possible, if you are into that ancient protocol, RSS.)
TL;DR here’s that quality productivity self-help life hack you can share with all your business bros and professional contacts on LinkedIn - DON’T WRITE THE GREAT AMERICAN EMAIL.
(That is, unless your work is composing an email newsletter that you hope will get picked up by The Atlantic or make you a Substack millionaire – in that case you should definitely try to write the Great American Email. The school district doesn’t pay me for that sort of work, though.)