Email Debt Forgiveness Day Is the Digital Holiday We Need

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April 30 is Email Debt Forgiveness Day. Toru Hanai/Reuters

First of all, I’m sorry. I meant to respond to your email ages ago. I even started typing a reply once. But I got distracted by a YouTube video of huskies howling, then fell asleep with my laptop next to me in bed.

I have, on any given day, between 10 and 30 unread messages in my inbox. Which seems mild, except that a) they’re not really unread and b) most have been sitting there for weeks or even months. (Do emails have expiration dates? Do they go bad?)

It’s not that I don’t care about the notes that land in the mark-unread vortex. Often, it’s that I care too much: I spend weeks waiting for the time to sit and draft a thoughtful reply—and then it’s too late. Replying would be weird. If I do, I preface it with a polite lie, like “I only just saw this” (almost universally untrue) or “I don’t check this account often” (I set up a forwarding service long ago).

Email is tyranny. According to one 2012 report, knowledge workers spend as much as 11 hours of a 40-hour workweek just reading and answering email. And how much more time do we spend merely thinking about replies yet to be sent? Entrepreneur Esther Dyson put it best when she wrote that each email “represents a task—something to read, a query to answer, a meeting to schedule, a bill to pay, a request to fulfill or deny.” I emailed Dyson for further comment, but she didn’t respond, which I guess proves her point.

But the best solution to the reply-later trap may not be an app or tech innovation. It’s a holiday. I floated the idea last year on Twitter, in a moment of frustration:

PJ Vogt recently had the same idea (withering inboxes think alike) but a different name, and, unlike me, he took action. Vogt, who hosts the Internet-themed podcast Reply All, and co-host Alex Goldman are declaring April 30 “Email Debt Forgiveness Day.” It’s a simple conceit: On that day, participants can send any email response they’ve been putting off “without any apologies or explanations for all the time that has lapsed.” The pair invited those planning to take part to leave them voice mails—the best will be played on air—and the response has already been overwhelming.

“I couldn’t tell if this was going to be like National Appreciate-Your-Typewriter Day or Valentine’s Day,” Vogt says. But he hasn’t been disappointed. “Everybody that I’ve talked to has immediately got it. I thought it would just be for anxious people. But everyone who’s a human being who’s used a computer understood a need for this.” (So, presumably, will the unwitting participants: those receiving overdue emails on the holiday. The key is to send the recipients a link to the holiday so they understand what’s up.)

Vogt, obviously, shares that need. The public radio veteran has 1,138 unread emails, and plans to respond to 20 or 30 of them on the 30th. “It’s random people reaching out for advice,” he says. “Friends. A lot of times it’s after someone says something nice and I felt like I didn’t know how to adequately respond.”

Once, he struggled to respond to an email from his therapist. “I was like, Man, if I can’t write this guy back, there’s probably no hope for me.” But it’s usually not anyone he’s likely to see in person. “I don’t answer those emails either, but when I see the person I just apologize profusely. I don’t know that that satisfies anybody. At least then I feel like I don’t have to send the email.”

He and Goldman briefly considered making the holiday monthly, but that seemed to cheapen it. Another abandoned idea: making the site say Email Debt Forgiveness Day takes place on whatever day you’re checking it.

There are other potential hacks. “I think I’ll write a macro to date-stamp all my future emails ‘April 30, 2015’ as a permanent stress-reduction strategy,” jokes longtime Atlantic correspondent James Fallows, who wrote about the future of email for the magazine last summer. (Fallows sent me this email response at 3:41 a.m., which makes me wonder if it was costing him sleep.)

From the voice mails he’s gotten from listeners, Vogt has heard dozens of tales of Email Avoidance Anxiety Disorder. “There are some examples where somebody has a very thorny emotional problem and it’s hard to write the email, and the person on the other end probably is wondering why they haven’t gotten the email,” he says. “But most of the stories you hear, a) it’s very likely the other person doesn’t care and b) the email you have to send doesn’t have to be very good.”

Which is what I’ll remind myself when I set aside an hour on the 30th to write replies. That will mean digging up and acknowledging a dozen or so neglected messages, some as old as six or eight months. (PR people who send me off-topic pitches: Not you.) There’s the one from a close college friend, recounting a Swans concert in detail. Another is from a potential source for a story I wanted to write but couldn’t find the news peg for. Yet another is from a founding Smash Mouth member’s wife. (I feel most guilty about this non-reply, and am really not making this up.)

I’ll respond to your note, too. I’m sorry I didn’t get to it earlier. I only just saw it.