On February 7, 1995, I bought my first computer. I totally forgot, until I checked Quicken to find the date, that I got a loan from my boss to get it, which I paid off for over a year. And isn’t it interesting that 12 years after that day I met Josh? Anyway…
Probably the next day (for some reason my emails only go back to 1998) I got my first email. Oh the joy! Oh the wonder! Oh the fabulous possibilities! I couldn’t GET enough email! Please, oh please send me email! Let me learn about this strange new world!
A few months after this I received an email from my friend Chester, completely out of the blue. I had no idea he even had a computer. Chester had been living in Bay Area of California, and I hadn’t heard from him very much. It was a wonderful way to reconnect with him.
I forget exactly how many computers I’ve owned, although that’s a bit confusing. Judging from Quicken, I updated my motherboard in 1998 (January – would that have been for Windows 98?), and I think that was the first OS I installed from CD (oh the speed! Oh the convenience! This is AMAZING!). It then appears I built a computer in 2001 – I’m guessing with my friend Matt’s help. And in 2006 I built the computer I’m using at this moment, again with Matt’s suggestions for hardware.
I’ve learned a lot about computers all this time, to the point that I build my own machines and do all the maintenance a slightly-above-average geek can do.
And during all this time, the emails have been coming in. And coming in. And coming in…
It reminds me of my first “real” job, which is the job I still have today at Qualtim, which I’ve had for 17 years (does anyone DO that anymore?). After a few months, it was just my boss, Kirk, and me. And we took over administration of WTCA, then called the Wood Truss Council of America, but now called WTCA – Representing the Structural Building Components Industry (why do I still need to look that up after two years?). When we first took over, I turned from proto-geek to full geek: I created a timesheet and invoicing program in Excel so that they didn’t have to be done by hand any longer. I taught myself about relational databases and built my first one to run the association. It handled company and individual information, membership data, orders, shipping, and much more. I first created it in Lotus Approach (oh the days…), and then re-created it in Microsoft Access. The timesheet/invoicing program was then re-created in Access, with a bit of help from my friend Brad. The data was then ported to SQL Server. Today that program is called “Main,” and is the backbone of our organization.
When I was 23 and first creating these systems, I was high as a kite. I was learning a lot, and to have all that responsibility for a nation-wide association was quite a kick! I built the data and procedural foundations for what is today a multi-million dollar organization!
However, as time went on, the shine fell off the apple a bit: I soon realized that along with that joy and prestige (?) came a lot of responsibility. And that responsibility got heavier, and heavier… and heavier. I learned that the lack of documenting was going to lead to serious issues: first, I have a horrible memory, and while I can figure out code pretty quickly, it still wastes time. The larger danger, however, is that if I were “hit by a bus” (a phrase we have used consistently over the years), others would have a really difficult time figuring out some of the–shall we say–“elegant” solutions I’d created. I felt like Ebinezer Scrooge’s cohort Bob Marley, who dragged the chains behind him after death – that’s what Main felt like at times. Even today, when we have three programmers on staff, I’m still the only one who takes forays into Main to make updates, etc. Others have gone in over time, and none of them are with us any longer.
Let’s get back to the topic at hand: email. During all of those database adventures, the emails continued to pile in. There were long stretches of time that I didn’t delete email from my inbox, to the point of having thousands of emails. Because I was becoming an instructor with the Center for Creative Learning, I found it necessary to get more organized, so I cleaned out the inbox, leaving only those tasks that needed to be done, responded to, etc. And I flagged emails that were of greater urgency: red being most, then yellow then orange, purple is for info only, and green is for whatever else.
And my inbox began feeling heavier, and heavier… and heavier. In the early ’90s I used to be BORED, not having enough to fill my time! Oh how I’ve yearned for those days, or at least a short visit of that feeling (that feeling was one of my three goals on vacation, along with eating and sleeping). In the past 10 years, life has felt more full than I like, at times being really stressful. I worked for 9 years at 3/4 time, taking most Wednesdays off. Then when I bought my house in 2004 I figured I’d better work full time to “support the house” – stupidest thing I ever did. The next three years were miserable, and I went back to 3/4 time last year. Although by then I had Josh in my life, so any vacuum I created was more than filled.
And all along, my inbox has been a focal point. A metaphor for my too-full life. An anchor. At times an enemy. I had a vision of a free and easy life, where I’d get up on a warm Spring morning with a smile on my face, have a Zen breakfast on the back patio (please pronounce “PAH tio” or “PAH chio” if you like), do some reading, BREEEEATHING all the way. And I’d be able to do that because my inbox (hear low cellos from a horror music score here) would be empty. I MUST EMPTY MY INBOX! But how? There are too many things to do! TOO TOO MUCH!
Well, sometimes adequate pressure is required to bring about change. Last December I was stressed out and had an epiphany: I cannot process all of the educational emails that come in as a result of my instructing work. I still had emails that I had to finish reading from 1998! I set up a system for the instructors to save that information for reference when needed, and get it the heck outta my inbox! At that point I got it down to eight emails, and was on top of the world. And immediately thereafter it began growing again. My decided limit at that point was a screen-full of emails. I soon surpassed that mark.
The pressure built again until the end of last month, when I added more decisions to my earlier epiphany: I cannot say ‘yes’ to as many things as I was. I love to please people (I’m actually quite compliant in personality), yet doing so gets me into trouble, i.e., not having a life. So I sent an email to the Instructor body of CCL informing them that I was going to focus my efforts on areas where my value is greatest, and leave some things for others to do. And I have been: when an eBook was being created, I only gave it a quick read-through, and didn’t do a SINGLE edit, which, with my desire to have things “Just so,” was a huge success in and of itself. Others were surprised by this (lack of) behavior on my part, which meant the success was serious.
This brings me (now us, since you’ve been reading this long [you still there? really? not bored yet?]) to last week, where I (trumpet fanfare) REMOVED THE LAST EMAIL FROM MY INBOX.
Have you ever had one of those moments where something monumental happens, and you don’t fully appreciate it until later? An unpleasant example I had that was comparable was cutting the end off of my fingernail with some of the quick a few weeks ago: I realized immediately what happened, but then sat and looked at it to really assess how bad it was (it wasn’t that bad – not a mark on me today). Or walking across the stage to graduate, or many other life-changing events. Does it sounds silly to compare these things to an inbox? If it does, I haven’t adequately communicated the significance of the feeling.
I’d lived for so long with my inbox having “something for me to do” – say 13 years? – that I was literally disoriented. It felt for a moment like I was looking at my Junk Folder, which I always empty immediately. There was nothing there to do. I imagine it felt something like having a dog die who was always peeing on the carpet, barking at the neighbors, chewing up shoes, and being generally unlikeable. Yet when he died, there was an empty place.
Well, this is where that analogy ends, because emails still come in, unlike the dog that won’t be coming back to life any time soon. It takes resolve and focus to keep my inbox empty, and I’ve got the systems in place to do it: things get passed off to others, scheduled, or filed with a reminder now. And it feels REALLY GOOD.
This morning felt really good, in fact. I got up with a smile on my face (petting Raja for a while is good for that), made my simple bed, walked across the bamboo flooring to open the blinds, then put on my robe and made some 10-grain cereal. I’ve responded to a few emails or scheduled things, and deleted or filed them. All. ALL of them. There’s nothing in my inbox right now. How does it feel?
As always, your comments, even if just “I was here!” are welcome.