You Need to Pick Which Email Problem You Want

In certain tasks, email is a deeply entrenched protocol in biblical studies, as in other knowledge work fields. The amount of attention that email can consume, however, far outstrips this usefulness since, fundamentally, biblical scholarship isn’t about doing email.1

The Choice of Problems

Email (or other similar communication tools) presents a constant inflow of invitations to pay attention to things you might not have chosen to pay attention to otherwise.2 As Greg McKeown insightfully observes,

When we don’t purposefully and deliberately choose where to focus our energies and time, other people … will choose for us, and before long we’ll have lost sight of everything that is meaningful and important. We can either make our choices deliberately or allow other people’s agendas to control our lives.3

Not least as they show up in your inbox, other people’s agendas may be benevolent, well-meaning, even good and helpful.

But at the last day, you’re going to give an account not for all those other people and their agendas—but for yourself and yours. That fact means that you shouldn’t abdicate your responsibility to choose whether

  • an agenda presented to you is something you’re meant to engage with (and if so, in what way) or whether
  • that agenda will ultimately prove to be a distraction, although it’s potentially quite good and right in itself (cf. Acts 6:1–7).

So, in terms of email, the question isn’t about satisfying everyone’s expectations around it. Instead, it’s a matter of asking, as McKeown pointedly queries,

Which problem do you want?4

In all likelihood, your inbox won’t spontaneously adapt itself to contain only important correspondence that does merit your attention. So, you will either have the problem that

  1. some correspondents won’t get the attention for their messages that they desire in the time frames they desire or that
  2. some of the other responsibilities you have (e.g., research, being fully present with your family) won’t get the attention they deserve.


The choice is yours. The first option is all too easy to take by default. But the second is where you can do things in the sphere of your calling that truly matter.

  1. Header image provided by Oliver Roos

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

  3. Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (affiliate disclosure; New York: Crown Business, 2014), 16. 

  4. McKeown, Essentialism, 57. 

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