Why You Need to Be Careful with Email

With other similar tools (e.g., instant messaging), email is a nearly ubiquitous feature of modern knowledge work.1 Arguably, it shouldn’t be—if what really matters about knowledge work is what it should be producing.2

Where possible, it may be helpful to devise alternative workflows that don’t require connection to a general-purpose inbox. But in some cases, email is built into the fabric of biblical studies in places that you and I can’t directly change.

Biblical Studies and Email

For example, if you want to submit a book proposal, maybe you can still submit it physically in the mail. But corresponding with you by post is going to introduce more friction for the acquisition editor you’re wanting to accept your proposal. And you might find it strategic to avoid adding that friction.

Or you might well submit a journal article through an online portal. But how will you be notified of a decision? In your email.

If you organize a collaborative project, your colleagues will likely expect email to be the default communication. It might well be worth building a different communication protocol that doesn’t rely on asynchronous, back-and-forth messaging. But that protocol isn’t just going to emerge by itself.

In addition, email has deeply entrenched itself as a protocol for internal communication at many organizations and institutions. So, email is likely to figure in your life to some extent. And it’s entirely possible to use email for good, necessary, and productive functions.

Email as User?

But then comes the rub. Email makes you accessible to essentially every other person on the planet who has your address and an internet connection. So, there’s a huge potential disproportion between the ability of messages to appear in your inbox and your ability to respond to them.

Or if you try to expand your ability to respond to them, you’ll soon end up stealing time from other responsibilities, like your research. Or maybe you’ll steal it from other people, like your loved ones.

You end up being used by your inbox rather than being a user of email to accomplish important things.

All too often, the “reward” of replying to email can be receiving email in reply. Each new message begins the cycle anew. And teach time it begins, it presents you with invitations to tend more to the ephemeral messages in your inbox than to the work and relationships will matter in the long run.


So, can you use email without being used by it? And if so, how?

Yes, you can. In short, doing so will take some savvy craftsmanship on your part to know when and for what purposes to pick up this tool—and when and how to simply let it lie in the toolbox.

  1. Header image provided by Elisa Ventur

  2. Cal Newport, A World without Email: Find Focus and Transform the Way You Work Forever (affiliate disclosure; New York: Portfolio Penguin, 2021). 

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