More than six months have passed since my last post, when I was feeling stuck in a rut and short on viable options. It wasn’t just me—Jeff and I were both asking ourselves and each other hard questions about where we wanted to live and what we wanted to do with our lives. We felt like we were running out of time to accomplish all of the things we want. At that point, we had been in New York City for more than three years, and while that in itself seemed like a monumental accomplishment (moving more than 1,500 miles from the only place we had ever really lived, making new friends, finding new work), it was starting to feel like the only thing we had accomplished in a long time.
Our creative pursuits had floundered, and I, at least, was doubting if my pursuits were even worth perusing. Everything seemed a little exhausting. My job was exhausting, every new job I considered sounded exhausting. Writing—supposedly what I really wanted to do—sounded exhausting. Even the world of food and agriculture, an arena of advocacy that had consumed my professional and volunteer time for a decade, was starting to bore me.
Since then, a few things have happened. First of all, it stopped being winter. That helped. But long before the snow melted for the last time in late March, I had made a few improvements to my mood. First of all, I managed to take two whole weeks off for Christmas. Then, I found an entirely new job. And before starting my new job, I dropped everything and went to England for a couple weeks, just to clear my head among Peter’s daffodils. More on all of those things later.
What I really want to talk about now is my inbox. The first time I heard someone refer to the psychic weight of his digital files, I felt sorry for him. What a sad thing to say, what a first-world problem. But slowly I realized there were all sorts of things in my life that felt heavy. The sweater in my closet that I kept because it was a gift, even though it didn’t fit well, felt heavy. The tent Jeff bought me for my 22nd birthday that we have never used, felt heavy. And my inbox felt heavy.
I know many people who use their inbox as their sole email storage system: Things get tagged and shifted, but nothing ever really leaves, and it balloons to 1,100 messages, maybe 11,000. That’s not my issue. I’m a firm believer that an inbox should be for incoming things and action items, and I try very hard to keep mine to one page, aka 50 conversations. Note that I said I try. But even when I’m successful, at every job I’ve ever had and even in my personal life there are always messages that sit in the bottom of my inbox like stones, sometimes for years. At first, they are reminders of things I need to do—not now, but soon—but after a few weeks (or months or even years) they become reminders of my failure. They are usually small things—articles I once intended to read, files I need to file, graphics that need one word edited.
Every now and then I do a big clean and shave my inbox down to just 20, maybe even 15, messages. I toss the old stones at the bottom. But when I was getting ready to leave my last job, I realized that there was no reason to leave anything in my inbox at all. If my coworkers needed to reference something later, they would be better served if I filed everything in folders or dealt with it myself before leaving. And as for dealing with things myself, well, this was my last chance. I only had a matter of days left to do everything I would ever do with that inbox and all of the requests, reminders and ideas inside of it. And that’s when I had one of the most empowering realizations of my life: There is no later.
Without “later” there was only “now,” only what I could do and what I couldn’t. I realized that “later,’ while giving the appearance of lightening my load, was actually like carrying around a giant backpack that I tossed way too many things into.
Despite how obvious this idea was, I had a hard time getting my body to obey. It was almost as if muscle memory was kicking in, telling me to procrastinate just a little bit more, to come back to an email when I was less tired/less bored/less distracted/had more time. But there was no more time. And for a person who is obsessed with options, having none was actually liberating. Many of the messages turned out to be small things, even things I could delete without any action. A few triggered regret or required acceptance. Over and over I told myself, “there is no later, there is no later.”
By my last day, I had done it—I made it to inbox zero. “There is no later” was a tiny mantra for my digital liberation, and it began to seep over into the rest of my life. In a way, time was my problem all along. For so many years there was so much time: time to build a career, to write a novel, to have a family, to make friends, to settle in, to up-root, to buy, to sell, to move abroad, to move home. I’ve done a lot of things I’m very proud of, but somehow the things that are closest to my heart are always shifted into the “later” category, and over the past year or two they have sat on my heart like stones. So heavy.
I’m afraid, even as I write this, that I won’t succeed in lifting them, that change and rest and summer have buoyed me, but that over time I will grow complacent. “Later” will creep in, and I will lose faith in myself again. At least I’ve gotten to the bottom of the problem, I’ve turned the stones over in my hands. I know their shape, and I know their weight. At least for now, there is no later.