A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.
- Henry David Thoreau
We’ve all experienced “inbox overload”, and there are a huge number of articles and strategies out there to deal with it, from inbox zero to elaborate filtering strategies to better tools to process email more quickly.
One solution to “inbox overload” that you don’t hear mentioned often is just deleting your email account. Not replacing it with a new one, but just…not using email anymore.
I know, it sounds crazy, especially if you’re an Important Person Who Needs To Get Things Done. It’s 2020, and email is as essential as electricity itself. Right?
Donald Knuth is a professor emeritus of computer science at Stanford, where he has been a member of the faculty for more than five decades. I’d like to draw your attention to this post on his Stanford faculty website, where he explains his relationship with email:
I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I'd used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime.
Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don't have time for such study.
On the other hand, I need to communicate with thousands of people all over the world as I write my books. I also want to be responsive to the people who read those books and have questions or comments. My goal is to do this communication efficiently, in batch mode --- like, one day every six months. So if you want to write to me about any topic, please use good ol' snail mail and send a letter to the following address:
The entire post is worth reading, but I’d like to focus on this question: if Donald Knuth is not filling his days with email like the rest of us, what has he been doing with all that free time?
A partial answer: he’s writing The Art of Computer Programming (TAOCP), a multi-volume work describing a variety of computer algorithms and their analysis. Knuth started it in 1962 (almost six decades ago!), and it still is not complete. It’s the work of a lifetime, and has been called one of the most important works of science of the twentieth century.
Now, I’m not anti-email, obviously. I’m writing these very words in preparation to send them out as an email newsletter.
And I don’t think that email is keeping most people from creating anything as valuable or enduring as TAOCP. I could have 1000 years of available time and I wouldn’t create anything so valuable.
What’s interesting is not the decision to give up email, but the ability to give up email. It’s a sign of having the freedom to focus deeply on something because it’s important or interesting, not because it’s immediately valuable to someone who is paying you for it. Those people tend to want you to check your email so they can keep tabs on you. The few people who can “go full Knuth” and give up email tend to be either wealthy, or so exceedingly talented that wealthy institutions or individuals become their patrons.
Everyone else has to try and carve out a little time and space to do their work while also paying for their bills.
And that’s really difficult for many types of work, which means we’re probably missing out on many Donald Knuth’s the world over. We’re missing people who have the capacity to create great works of art, science, philosophy, and more, who lack the free time and social support to think and create for the sake of doing so.
Now, going back to my post yesterday, why don’t we stop trying to identify the 1 in a million geniuses so we can give them time and space to do their work, and instead figure out a way to let everyone have that time and space, and see what happens?
There is virtually nothing about our lives today that wouldn’t have been absolutely crazy and impossible a few hundred years ago. So rather than constantly talking about how it’s impossible, let’s figure out a path towards a world where everyone is born with a birthright always having all of their basic needs taken care of.
What if we enabled everyone to devote their lives to whatever pursuits suited their fancy? How many more Donald Knuth’s would we get in return?
PS - mildly interesting: there’s a timestamp in the source code of the Knuth email page linked above that states it was last updated on more than two decades ago:
Changed by: Ursula N. Owen, 8-Mar-1999
I was curious about this “Ursula N. Owen”, thinking perhaps she was an assistant of Knuth’s back in the 90s. It turns out that it’s a pseudonym sometimes used by Knuth himself, and is a reference to “U.N. Owen”, a character from And Then There Were None, a best-selling Agatha Christie novel first published in 1939 and one of the best-selling books of all time. The name “UN Owen” itself is a play on “unknown”, and I like to think of Donald chuckling to himself whenever he used that pseudonym.
I told you, mildly interesting.