On email addiction and the finely sliced hour
I love email. I was an early adopter of it, both in the sense that I began emailing back when AOL reigned supreme in the dial-up world, and in that I started when I was in my early teens, when most kids my age just picked up the phone. Email appeals to me in so many ways: it allows me to say precisely what I want, gives me the ability to edit (a crucial tool when dealing with overly sensitive friends who parse every word I utter), and I can compose it on my time, without having to go through the preliminaries inherent in a phone conversation. One of my best friends and I are notorious for calling each other, and launching straight into, “I just got here, where are you?”(That is, until texting took over even that function).
I was also, at one point, addicted to email. When I heard the ding that told me a new email arrived in my inbox, I would drop everything to dash across the room and see what exciting new notice my bank sent me. If I was awake, I was checking email, sometimes even when I was falling asleep. If, somehow, I detected a “ding” when half awake, I would actually get out of bed to see who emailed me. Now there are studies about this addiction and how it primes your brain to feel rewarded as you check and re-check email. But ten or fifteen years ago, I just considered it bragging rights.
At my first job at a publishing company, I was so on top of emailing with authors and translators that when I finally met them face to face, their first remark was often, “You’re so prompt at returning my emails!” It made them feel so good that I was attentive to their queries and needs, and it made me feel good that I ruled the email world. This trend only got worse when instant messaging programs and high-speed wireless Internet proliferated. In law school, I was not only on four different email accounts at the same time; I was also on two different instant messaging programs, night and day ― and during class. I was able to keep in touch with far flung friends and send them inane updates about what I witnessed on my morning commute (like that addict with a needle sticking out of his arm).
When I began practicing law, however, I’d had enough. I had to keep track of my time in 6-minute increments for billing purposes, and I soon started thinking of my whole day in billable hours. Most lawyers complain about this, but it’s hard to really understand what billing feels like and what it does to your psyche unless you’ve lived through it. You find yourself standing in line at a sandwich place for lunch, tapping your foot impatiently, thinking, “0.2 already! So slow.” It’s an understatement to say that you will soon become annoyed and frustrated with everything and everyone. Even at home, when I was working on a translation project, I would stop for a snack and find myself writing “2.6” on a scrap of paper, the way I did at work to later record it in our timekeeping program. Once, when some non-lawyer friends I was meeting for a movie were 30 minutes late, I texted a lawyer friend of mine: ``Everyone’s late. 0.5 wasted.’’
Once you start thinking about time in this way, and you have to keep track of how much time you spent when you “reviewed client email” or “sent client email,” you don’t ever want to email anyone ever again. So when my personal email program dinged, I no longer ran over. In fact, I turned off the volume so I wouldn’t know when a new email came through. I didn’t return emails for days, sometimes weeks, and when I did I no longer composed meandering, stream-of-consciousness missives about minute details of my life. Of course, smartphones became popular around this time, which made it even more difficult to wean myself from my email addiction. To make matters worse, I was issued a BlackBerry (deemed CrackBerry among suffering fellow lawyers) from work that I was supposed to check frequently.
Now, at my non-legal job, I am still quick to respond to work-related emails, and I respond fairly quickly to personal emails than when I was practicing law. Not being required to check a BlackBerry at every waking moment does wonders to your mental health. It did take me a full year at this current job to stop thinking of time in 6-minute increments. Color has returned to the world, and life feels less restrictive and much more enjoyable. Now, my issue with emails is that when I try to send a personal email from home, a certain toddler wants to help me compose it, only to run away with the mouse. Although I was shaking my fist at smartphone makers a few years ago, now I don’t know what I would do without the ability to dash off an email as I apply mascara.
Chi-Young Kim is a literary translator based in Los Angeles. She has translated works by Shin Kyung-sook, Kim Young-ha, and Jo Kyung-ran. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her website, chiyoungkim.com.