Unread messages

“There are two types of people in the world: those with hundreds of unread messages, and those who can’t relax until their inboxes are cleared out.”
Joe Pinsker, Inbox Zero vs. Inbox 5000: A Unified Theory, The Atlantic, May 27, 2015

In the house where I grew up, there was a space where the kitchen ended and the space containing the kitchen table began.  (Dining room is too grand a term for what it was and would convey the wrong image.)

At the end of the kitchen counter, there were pens, pencils and a constant supply of note-sized paper.  These irregular shapes had once been envelopes, junk mail, discarded typed pages.  Anything with enough remaining white-space was reclaimed, scissored down by my mother and added to the little pile of note paper.

From these, lists were made.  Everyone in the family used the list station at the edge of the kitchen.  Shopping lists, reminders to be included in lunch sacks, household notes, to-do lists.  Some lists were affixed to the door of the refrigerator.  As they aged, each entry on each list was checked off.  As older lists were completed, newer lists appeared on the door, some for Mom, many for Dad, a few for us kids.

Household order was created, progress visually displayed, status maintained, accomplishment recorded.  Project management of a 1950’s American family.

The reclaimed paper, the place they occupied in the house, the reminders, the to-do’s, the checking off of accomplishments… these were all part of the larger experience of my family.  It was normal.  I accepted it all as I found it, as learned behavior, as matters of fact, routine. It was the way things were.

Lists not only contributed to the running of the family household, they also conveyed their own authority.  To-do lists had gravitas.  They directed actions, implied obligations.  Those responsible for items on to-do lists were charged with their execution.

With this list-culture as training, my response was respect, for the lists themselves as credible objects and the action they commanded.  If a list went up on the refrigerator door with my name on it, attention must be paid.

Here, years on, the early indoctrination in list management has now found its corollary in response to the email inbox.

Again, Joe Pinsker:

“Immediately reading and archiving incoming emails is just like checking a box on a to-do list and clearing out unread stories in an RSS feed. In other words, the appeal of these behaviors lies in the illusion of progress that they foster. Few tasks have a sense of conclusion as neat and immediate as archiving or deleting an email. For that reason, neurotically tidy people like me can’t help but triage emails the moment they arrive.”

Ah yes.  I became, by rigorous training in my youth, one of the afflicted.

With age and the wearing away of urgency of nearly everything, both the immediacy and the illusion  of progress are releasing their tenacious grip.  Given to procrastination by constitution but driven to response by training, the former is finally having its way with such nonsense as reflexively reacting to lists or the arrival of electronic correspondence.

I’m not entirely free, not yet anyway, but I can see it from here.


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