Apparently, it is the god damn Wild West out there these days. A recent email I sent was met with an out-of-office message that threw me into an emotional tailspin. Here’s what it said — and I’m paraphrasing, but you’ll get the gist:
Hi! I am out of the office until [irrelevant dates]. When I get back, I will delete everything and set my inbox to zero. If you’ve sent me an email that I’ve yet to respond to, please re-send upon my return.
What the true fuck. There is no way this is allowed.
Turns out it is. Turns out I, and probably you, too, can go down to inbox zero or do anything we want so long as we put our minds to it — a statement I deliver with absolutely zero hint of a “you go girl” attitude nor “I am just sad and kidding, we are all screwed” irony. It’s a matter of reevaluating our thinking and re-setting priorities in the process.
I used to spend an enormous portion of my life handing out the same business card of a canned excuse that said, “I don’t have a choice.”
I have to skip dinner tonight because I have to hit a deadline. I don’t have a choice.
I don’t want to get a drink with that girl but I have to. She’ll kill me if I bail. I don’t have a choice.
I must deal with all of these emails today because, if I don’t, I’ll let the ones I can’t or don’t want to deal with fester in my inbox as a reminder of my inadequacy, my ever-growing to-do list and my guilt, and eventually, I will have to deal with those emails, too. I don’t have a choice.
Accepting my lack of choice in the matter frequently took the cause for blame off my shoulders. When it came to work-related excuses, it got me off the hook; you can’t get mad at someone for skipping something when that someone doesn’t have a choice! It was a devil’s trade, however, because in return, it took away any sense of control over my life. When I told myself I “had” to do something, like attend a social event that I’d much rather skip, I felt beholden to the plan as though it were either that or…I don’t know what. The option to opt out was not an option.
A year ago, I had a thing with a guy who got mad at me because I worked too much. (He was dramatic. I couldn’t leave work early for 5 p.m. drinks, couldn’t meet him midday for lunch, couldn’t play hooky like he wanted.) My excuse was always, “I don’t have a choice.” Then one day, after the final straw, he said the only smart thing to come out of his mouth the entire time we were whatevering: “Actually, you do have a choice — work, or me. You’ve just already made it.” At the time, I argued this wasn’t true, but he was right. My career that summer was my priority, not him. In fact, almost every time I employed this line in the past I did, actually, have a choice, and I made it: I’ve skipped dinners in the name of adult responsibility and attended social obligations so as not to offend, or to uphold commitments. That inbox of mine, that all-you-can-eat well of looming, taunting, auto-refilling distractions — I didn’t have to empty it like a bladder each night before I went to bed. No one at work made me. I chose to.
For some reason, the realization that these were my choices, that I was in control, not beholden instead to some grand marionette overhead, didn’t click all the way into place until I received that outrageous out-of-office notice. When I first read it, I was indignant. I brought it up to everyone I ran into. I yelled at it like my dad does to the television. “You can’t do that!!!”
But why not? So this woman chose to clear her inbox and start fresh upon her return from vacation. She was upfront about it. Those who needed her knew when to get back in touch. It wasn’t irresponsible. In fact, it was probably extremely productive. No way would this method fly in every office, but it made me think about how much undue weight I put on my own tasks — both self-assigned and those that fall under my job description. I’ve always thought it was bullshit that you can “choose” to be in a good mood, or “choose” to be positive; I still struggle with that part of choice. But this is tangible. This is actionable. You can choose to do whatever the hell you want to better accommodate your own life: how you organize your time, how you spend your money, who you hang out with.
That doesn’t mean you make the choice to not answer emails or not attend the birthday dinner and poof — everyone with an urgent request and a party hat is on-board with your agenda. Your landlord will not say, “You chose to spend rent money on shoes instead? No worries! Way to exercise your agency!” Just as you do when you set boundaries, you must consider the potential consequences of your choices and then prioritize: does the (potential) outcome of your choice outweigh the (potential) end result? Which is more important?
I did not delete my entire inbox, but I did choose to delete all the emails I hadn’t addressed in a year. I chose to decline a few social things I really didn’t want to attend after weighing the pros and cons. I chose to go to something awful in the name of friendship. Last week, I chose to leave work for a fun dinner when I still had stuff to finish. This morning, I chose to wake up early for a deadline push. The liberation is not so much in the thing itself — certainly there’s no sigh of relief in facing the blank screen of an arduous to-do or the door of a terrible, too-loud restaurant. But realizing I have more control of my days and nights than I previously internalized is a revelation. Like, I’d put that in my auto-response message before anything else.
Photo by Arthur Elgort/Conde Nast/Contour by Getty Images.