The average professional receives approximately 120 emails in her work inbox daily, on top of the emails in her personal inboxes and social media DMs. Interspersed among notes from colleagues and friends is a deluge of deals and newsletters asking us to read, buy, share, and be more.
This makes us feel anxious and has led to a host of advice columns on how to tame your inbox. But when optimization is one of society’s highest values, fear of the notification icon can tempt us to neglect the calling of the Golden Rule.
How can we love and serve our fellow emailers without spending too much time in our inboxes?
Nearly two decades ago, productivity expert Merlin Mann popularized the inbox zero method of ruthlessly eliminating or delegating your inbox down to nothing. In recent years, counteractive approaches such as inbox infinity (letting your inbox grow without addressing or even reviewing the majority of your mail) encourage users to respond to the emails they happen to see and to burden others with following up on critical matters.
Today, dozens of AI email assistants promise to free us up for more important duties by responding on our behalf. Ellie will learn your writing style and craft replies in your voice. Missive can automatically inject whimsy into your emails using template prompts like “End email with a random philosophical quote.” However well intentioned and genuinely helpful these ideas are, each one leads us to obsess over productivity instead of presence.
Love Your Neighbor
Michael Sacasas, executive director of the Christian Study Center in Gainesville, Florida, captured the human frustration of receiving an autoresponse through sharing a universal experience: calling a credit card company’s customer service line. After running through multiple service departments and automated menus, Sacasas reached someone who genuinely explored the issue with him.
“Efficiency and speed and optimization and profitability . . . increasingly dictate how we act and interact in many if not most of the social spaces we inhabit,” he wrote. “It can be startling, if also invigorating and life-giving, to encounter someone who will break the script and deal with you as a person in [the] fullest sense—by taking the time to regard you with kindness and respect, by offering a simple gesture of help or courtesy born out of deliberate attentiveness, by conveying care through the words they speak to us and how they are delivered.”
While walking among us, Christ always met people in the fullest sense, even those asking inane or complex questions. Matthew 22:15–46 contains a series of bitter inquiries from the temple leaders that Jesus makes time and space to answer. Amid their questioning, he summarizes the first and second greatest commandments:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (vv. 37–39)
What does it look like to love your neighbor as yourself? Jesus models one way in his posture toward the Pharisees and Sadducees. Rather than dismissing their questions or giving trite responses, he loved these men by considering their unique status, intentions, and needs. He took the time to communicate clearly and patiently. He wanted them to understand his message.
I’m not saying your email to a colleague is as life-giving or critical as Jesus’s conversation with the Pharisees. But if we take care to see our emails less as tasks and more as interactions with real people, our written words can become a small conduit for the grace of Christ.
Instead of trying to reply in as few words as possible (or ignoring the message altogether), try writing a helpful and kind message. If you have a choice between a short response and a longer one that would serve or teach better, choose the more thorough explanation. When frustrated by someone’s phrasing, assume positive intent. Believe he’s doing his best as you craft your response.
The Golden Rule cannot be automated. Relationships cannot be optimized. AI cannot respond in love the way you can.
Steward Your Time
You might be wondering, Who has time for that? If we craft kind, thoughtful emails to everyone in our inbox, that would take hours.
Stewarding your inbox while honoring others requires the humility of knowing your unique temptations and limitations. To achieve a pace that allows you to engage more deeply than widely, consider implementing the following practices:
- Lovingly let your friends and family know your current priorities and expectations for digital communication.
- Unsubscribe from e-commerce emails and newsletters that distract you and entice you to overconsume.
- Set up a system to ensure messages or tasks don’t slip past you, whether it’s reading through emails at the end of each day, using folders to remind yourself of tasks, or clearing your inbox at the end of each week.
- Practice the final fruit of the Spirit: self-control. Break your email addiction by turning off notifications and closing your inbox. Set a reminder to check your email a few times a day rather than the average professional’s habit of 11 times an hour.
- Consider whether a loving reply for this specific person would require more or fewer words.
- When you don’t have the answer or the time to respond, connect senders to someone who can assist with their inquiry instead of ignoring them.
Using these ideas to redirect your energy toward caring for others will allow you to find a new purpose in a seemingly endless and isolated task.
As Christians, our goal for email shouldn’t look like everyone else’s. Instead of searching for ways to expand our own productivity at the expense of someone else’s, we should be looking to serve. Instead of wasting time with endless email checks or chaotic inboxes, we should create good boundaries that acknowledge our human limitations.
And instead of bemoaning or battling email, we should see it as it is—a communication gift that needs to be brought under the lordship of Christ.
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