The 140 Character Email: An Experiment in Sanity

IN: Hard Stuff

You know the email.

The one you’re dreading responding to—not because of what it says, but because the second you open it, all you see is A GIANT, LOOMING TSUNAMI OF TEXT lurching at your face as if the sender had taken the entire Sunday edition of The New York Times, reformatted it into one column, printed it off onto a roll of 1992 perforated computer paper, and then laughed as they lit it on fire and dropped it off at your digital doorstep—aka, your inbox—before prancing into the sunset singing, “Tag, you’re it!”

So not it. 

As I indicated here, I think email is becoming a disease—a frantic click-of-the-button, monkey-brained obsession—and I think we can do better.

As business owners, as creatives, as people who spend so much of their life online, email is a necessary medium—and one that can be incredible when used correctly—but one that I do believe can also cause us all to go a little, well, loopy if we let it.

Why? Because it’s an open invitation to tap your brain, any time, any day.

And when the world has an open invitation straight into your brain, it takes it. 

Next thing you know, you’re frantically trying to keep up with this digital box of suck—often feeling guilty if you don’t reply to the world right away, if an email goes unanswered too long, if you don’t match the sentiment or length of the other person’s email—and as a result, you end up using all of your creative energy playing whack-a-mole, trying so hard to “keep up” and “get ahead,” and reach “inbox zero”—which makes me laugh, and laugh, and laugh to imagine what that would actually look like.

For the record, I’ve never reached it. But, I think that’s precisely the point.  None of us will ever reach it, and maybe we shouldn’t aspire to.

Email is what’s called a Sisyphean task— the actual name for a task that can never be completed. It comes from Greek mythology (because what doesn’t?), referring to the son of the king who was punished by being forced to roll a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and then have to push it up again…over and over forever.

Over the last ten years as an entrepreneur, I’ve grown to appreciate that email isn’t the only Sisyphean task—all of business is. And in many aspects, life, too. The work is never done—as much as you’re hoping for that light at the end of the tunnel. But, you know what? It doesn’t have to be a bad thing, if you can learn how to be IN the tunnel without wanting to run out of there screaming and crying and yelling and pulling a blanket over your heard every day of your life.

What if, instead, of worrying so much about being done, we got better at “doing?”

Right now, we’re still acting like it’s the early 90’s (checkmate, that’s twice I got to talk about the 90’s)—even though the demands on our time are quite different. As email volume has increased exponentially for all of us, and all sorts of other platforms have been introduced, now we’re tasked with keeping up with not only our business inbox, but our personal inbox, our Facebook inbox, our Facebook wall, our Twitter inbox, our feed, our Linked In box, our Linked In feed…not to mention the other clown circus of text messages, iMessages, What’s App messages, Instagram comments, blog comments, Google alerts and not to mention those mysterious old fashioned things called phone calls. 

And the crazy part about all of that—is that we’re actually trying to keep up with it all!

Is this not insane to you?

Why is no one talking about how completely ludicrous this is?

Why is everyone content to have ding after notification after alert ring through their eardrums, hurriedly rushing to their phones, their computers, their inboxes to try and push the rock back up the hill?

As someone who makes a living entirely online, I appreciate technology more than most. But I also know that good can become evil when it’s not managed properly.

As the rest of the world stays content with having their lives invaded by any and every stranger who feels like sending a request, it’s up to YOU to decide to what extent you’re going to participate. Because people, by nature, are needy. And if you let them manipulate your time, they will. It’s YOUR job to step up and actively set your own boundaries—or risk being trampled over by an internet full of individuals who are, frankly, all trying to do the best they can to get ahead.

We need to be more mindful. More mindful about other people’s time, and more mindful about our own.

We need to respect one another, in a world where disrespect has become the norm. Because the problem is not that the world wants to trample over your boundaries; the problem is that none of us have any, anymore.

So, I’ve made the decision to be proactive about my own boundaries, and get really clear on the ways I’d like to communicate with the world—and vice versa. And the biggest thing that keeps coming up for me?


It isn’t about shutting people out, but rather, using things like email and social media as helpful tools; not disabling crutches.

I want to live in a world where I interact more with people in person than I do behind a screen, and I want to live in a world where, when I am behind that screen, I’m happy to use the tools I’ve been graced with—email included—because it’s no longer an all-consuming, soul crushing ordeal.

And to me, it all comes back to brevity.

Originally I imagined drafting the email policy from hell, but decided that what I want is less of a policy, and more of a principle; a new way to structure the way I handle communication.

Here are some of the decisions I’ve made as it pertains to communication via my public persona. Naturally, these won’t apply to situations where I’m communicating with clients, for example, but are designed to help me thoughtfully and personally manage my own public platform in a way that helps me to mindfully be present to review the things I need to in order to do my job, while filtering out some of the unnecessary, unhelpful noise of the world.

While you may not find yourself in a position to need to experiment with something like this, I’m sharing these in the event that perhaps the inspiration will be useful to you—even simply as validation for your own thoughts—and welcome you to adopt any of the following as your own.

After all, we’re all in this together.

1. Eliminate the need for unnecessary email.

Over the next week or so, I’ll be implementing smarter contact forms to help folks get the answers they need without having to send an email. I love Gravity Forms  because their conditional logic works really well for this. For example, if you tell me that you’re contacting me to ask a question about our affiliate program, I can use it to display the links you might be looking for (to sign up, or log in, or because you lost your password), and give you the answer you need…without you having to send an email to ask for it. Or if you want to inquire about copywriting, I can tell you availability on the spot. Or, if you want to harass me, send me generic requests for publicity in which you misspell my name, or tell me how excited you are that you lost your virginity last night (actually an email I received), I can funnel you to the appropriate department. 🙂


Thoughts on this: Sometimes your email volume is your own fault. Be more considerate about helping people find the things they need, and they won’t have to send you a digital missile.

2. When email is necessary, I’ve made the decision to limit length to 140 characters.

140 characters?! Whoa! That’s the length of a tweet! I know. And it’s beautiful. With Gravity, I can limit the maximum number of characters that can be sent via email, which isn’t an effort to silence anyone, but rather, force us all to get to the point and be as brief and respectful of each other’s time as possible. The more brief the email, the easier it is for me to read it, and the quicker I can help. I chose 140 characters because Twitter has rocked it successfully, and I think it will be helpful here, too. It’s similar in concept to Three Sentences – which I’ll be appending to the end of my own emails, as a way to return the favor.


Thoughts on this: Sometimes it’s hard to be as friendly and fun-loving as I like to, but I owe the rest of the world the same courtesy. Double bonus? No one has to worry about polite introductions, chatting about the weather, or fake pleasantries. 🙂

3. And here’s my most interesting experiment of all.

For the emails that fall into the longer categories, strangers can send an email to me longer than 140 characters…if they’ve determined that sending the email is something they truly must do. In an effort to raise consciousness and be mindful of the very little time we all share here on earth, those folks will have to submit a $1 USD fee to be able to send it. I’ll return the dollar when I answer the email. The goal here is not to be irrational. On the contrary, the idea is to be highly rational. It’s a mechanism to force us all to pause and reflect–particularly people with whom I don’t have an existing relationship.


Thoughts on this: This is tricky because it can easily be misconstrued as obnoxious, but I think it’s a worthwhile experimentation. I’m curious how having to process less email will affect my own work and creativity, and this is one way to accomplish that.

I’m taking some of these measures because I want to be able to continue to connect with people myself—without hiring on a team of faceless parrots to answer emails meant for me.

Some of them are because, after growing an agency the last few years, I’ve recently made the decision to scale way back and keep things small. (I discovered I like writing far more than I do people and project managing.)

And some of them are simply because I want to be proactive about peace. Mental peace, emotional peace, physical peace.

And the only way any of us are ever going to have the peace of mind we’re looking for?

Is to stop looking, and start asking.