Periscope Depth

up onto the banks of this hard land

Our ancestors were hunters and foragers. The kind of hunger that we call “starving” today (as in “Mom, I’m -”), they lived with every waking hour. They followed herds of animals that were faster, stronger and better armed than they were and they died if they weren’t smarter. For the first ninety thousand years of its existence, the human race knew only one song and that was keep moving.

Fast forward ninety thousand years to this Tuesday, when my email at work was so slow that I couldn’t use it. I would click on a message with a file attachment and count one, two, three, four, five, six before it opened. The message, that is, not the file. Opening a file merited a trip to the water cooler.

“You have eighteen thousand emails in your inbox,” someone said. “Try deleting a few.”

Humans can’t visualize eighteen thousand of something. Hell, we have a hard time with more than seven. We’re descended from a species that never saw a thousand of anything useful. I didn’t intend to have eighteen thousand emails in my inbox. It might have been eighteen hundred or eighteen million.

Apparently my work email doesn’t have a limit on inbox size. Every other company I’ve ever worked for dinged me when my inbox got too big. I used to find this insanely frustrating. Cloud computing!, I would yell at Outlook. Web 2.0! Paperless office! Cheap bandwidth! Agile management! I’d do this at least once a month, angrily archiving and wishing for more storage all the while.

I never realized that the limits were there to help me. If you don’t think of limits as helpful, try searching through eighteen thousand emails.

Limits force me to be lean. I have to be ruthless with my inbox. If it’s older than a month, archive it. If my name isn’t in the “To:” field, ignore it. If I can’t find it, ask the person to reforward it. This reduces the time that Outlook has to spend churning for something.

Limits reduce my processing time. Before, if I wanted to find an old email, I had to search through eighteen thousand. Now, I know an email is either in my inbox or my archive. I can search my inbox in a few seconds. And if more than half of my queries take a few seconds, rather than minutes, that makes me more efficient.

This isn’t accidental. Humans evolved to make the most of limited resources, including the energy available for our brains. A flock of birds takes off from the trees; you want to waste valuable calories counting each of them? Is there that much difference between a flock of two hundred and a flock of one hundred and ninety-seven? It’s a flock. It’s a whole mess of birds. Move on.

Every now and then I think about cutting back. When I’m not at work, I’m writing. When I’m not writing, I’m blogging, either for this little soapbox or for Overthinking It. When I’m not blogging, I’m at jiu-jitsu. When I’m not at jiu-jitsu, I’m piecing together a social life. Sometimes I eat; sometimes I sleep. And sometimes the stress of answering a hundred little bells makes me want to punch the sun out of the sky.

But I do my best work when I’m cornered. When every hour of the day is spoken for, I have to use my time wisely. I’m ruthless with my minutes. I write like I’m hungry and I hustle like I’m broke. Even if my job does pay me a princely salary, I keep moving as if it doesn’t. I fill my days with the stuff that would be a second job or a night shift. I try not to let comfort catch up with me.

Milennia ago, my great-nth grandfather stood somewhere in Africa and wondered if there was a number higher than eighteen thousand. The fact that I’m here means he didn’t waste too much time wondering. I owe it to him to do the same. Ignore the numbers. Pick up the pace. Get lean and stay ruthless. Keep moving.