The therapeutic value of an unsent e-mail

I think the best ten minutes I spent this morning were ten minutes that were basically wasted. I’ll never send the email I crafted in that time and it’s probably for the best but it certainly felt good writing it. So today’s unsent email happened because of a project we’ve been developing lately. We’ve been spending a lot of time working to develop an automated system with security and operational security capabilities for schools. It’s something that I’m really passionate about and I believe there’s an opportunity to make a difference. I’ve got three kids and at the end of the day, job one to me for schools is getting my kids back home safely. Of course I’d love it if they know their multiplication tables and their ABC’s but job one is just get them home safe.

One of the things that I’ve become a lot more aware of as my kids have gotten into school is I’ve become a lot more knowledgeable about what the statistics are around crime and safety in schools. It’s not the big incidences that you hear about on the news that should scare most parents because those are really unfortunate things that probably could have happened anywhere. Those are really difficult to prevent which doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try, it’s just that everyday there are lots of bad things happening that don’t make the news. Working to prevent those things is important too. So we’ve been trying to come up with a better way to have a conversation around the information in this space because there isn’t as much information as you would think.

We’re trying to help develop a mechanism to evaluate, across the board, the schools in this country for safety and security in a way that is economically feasible. If you know much about the schools in your community, you know that they’re probably facing some severe budgetary hurdles because the whole country is facing that issue. We saw this as an opportunity for the types of things that we’re good at in terms of being able to leverage the cloud to reduce costs, the development times, and to make things widely available rapidly. We saw this as a real opportunity for us to make a difference and we jumped into it. We basically jumped in and looked at many specific solutions. That’s part of what we do for a living whether it’s for large retail organizations, federal, or whatever it is, we bring our expertise in security, technology, information management, and performance management.

While we bring all our expertise in these areas we still look to other organizations to help make sure that we are looking at the problem all the way around. One of the things that I do not just with this school assessment but with every product that has been an outshoot of our services work, is reach out into that community and try to identify folks that may be able to help us ensure that what we are delivering is of the highest possible quality. So I’ve done some of that reaching out and you know at the outset of something like that, you’re going to get back some people who are going to take it as an attack on themselves. They will take it as attack on an area where they have their particular expertise. Essentially, you’re becoming competition.

So I’d sent a note to a gentleman and I’d spent a little bit of time trying to make sure that I emphasized the part explaining that what we’re trying to do is change the way that this space works in general. We want to make the economics work for schools and I got back a really nasty note. They basically said that they would never want to help a competitor and that we really didn’t know anything about the problem set. Like many other people, that type of response frustrates me.

So I spent about ten minutes putting together a response detailing all of the reasons why what we were doing is the right thing. I got to the end of it and realized that I would never send it. I didn’t send it because that response just adds fuel to the fire and it distracts from the mission at hand. So like I said that ten minutes was a waste of my time. I probably would have been better served to just say to myself, “You know what, this person is not interested in helping out, they don’t see the problem the way I see it, and they see what we’re doing as a threat to their livelihood.” It doesn’t help to get frustrated just because someone doesn’t see things your way. It’s probably a little bit childish. So it makes sense for me to not send that mail and that’s the bottom line but it was incredibly therapeutic for me to just put those thoughts down on paper. The simple act of getting those thoughts out of my head and into an email helped me to get over it even though I knew it would not be seen by anyone else. I’m curious what other people think. Probably once every three or four days I write up a pretty good sized email and then don’t send it because I believe in the therapeutic value in authoring those emails. Word of caution to avoid unpleasant mishaps needs to be noted, make sure to delete them out of my draft folder to make sure they don’t get sent.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Deborah York

I practice this all the time. When I get an email that makes me angry I take a breath, write a response and wait a day until I have calmed down. Then I go back and read the email that I took the time to write and decide if I should edit it with a calmer mind or not send. Either way I feel much better channeling the passion for the topic in the writing.

Carol Davison

I also draft email responses to “accusations” but wait at least 24 hours before responding. I want to ensure that I have cooled off and understand the situation before doing so. But often, there is no need to respond at all.

David B. Grinberg

Another nice post, Joshua. A bit heavy on your work project, but points well made nonetheless.

I recall reading somewhere that after the death of President Lincoln, scathing unsent letters were found in his desk addressed to various field commanders who lost battles during the Civil War. How would those commanders have responded after being taken to the woodshed by the President in wartime? I suppose we will never know.

Remember that tried and true adage: if in doubt, leave it out!

Earl Rice

I do this, compose, vent, and then delete. I think it helps get through the day. And David’s comment about Lincoln are factual. Though Lincoln didn’t send them, the Generals that they were intended for usually were replaced anyway at a later date. Through the years, I have learned that every action has a re-action that is equal or worse. I ask myself the question “is it worth it?” So besides the if in doubt, leave it out, I add “choose your battles carefully” and “is it worth it, will it do any good”.

Elizabeth Grace Schaller

Before I came to work for the state I spent about 20 years as a substance abuse counselor. Letter writing was one of the theraputic tools I used to help people who had relationship problems and kept all the feelings bottled up inside. After the letter was finished they would read it in group and get feedback. It never failed that during the process they came to realize something about themselves and the person that they hadd all the feeling for. Sometines it was a validation process other times clarification and often time what they reported to feel toward that person was not the real feelilngs that they were experiencing.

I have personally used this technique when I was confused about my relatinonship with someone and find it very helpful in sorting out my true feelings. Just one last comment it strikes me how many time I think I am angry with someone and it turns out the I have been hurt or are afraid that I have been wronged somehow and then I have to deal with those issues on a personal level.

Sarah Hertig

I have a 24-hour rule. I write the email in the heat of the moment, save it to draft (and I don’t put ANYONE on the TO/CC/BCC line), and revisit it 24 hours later. Usually my brain has had chance to be rational about the situation and I either craft a new message without the emotion or just delete it all together. A very theraputic process and it usually keeps me out of trouble. After 24 hours the juice is usually not worth the email squeeze.

John L. Waid

Good advice, but sad commentary on the state of our society and discourse in general. First, it used to be that our top priority was the education our kids were getting. Now we are more concerned with getting them back safely each day. Second, all too much of discourse today is less reasoning backward from facts than reasoning forward from theories. Naturally, people will want to defend their theories above all else. While one can argue facts, one cannot really argue theories. An exercise like this is often helpful in determining for myself whether I am dealing with a person who is so emotionally invested in the issue that they see questions and arguments with their facts as personal attacks.

Jeffrey Levy

Definitely a good way to vent and then give yourself a chance to review it later.

Two tips:

  1. Never put anything in the address lines. That’s not a bad tip in general anyway – I’ve accidentally sent half-finished (normal, non-rant) emails because I clicked the wrong thing when trying to paste in an attachment, for example.
  2. Don’t tell anyone else you’ve written it. Almost 20 years ago, I wrote an actual letter (on real paper!) to the head of our agency complaining about the slllloooowwww process of getting her signature on a regulation that everyone, including industry, agreed was needed. I never intended to send it, and never did, but I mentioned writing it to my boss. Bad move – she thought I’d sent it and brought it up years later as a reminder to me not to write outside the chain of command.
Jaime Gracia

Great post. I wish that I had actually sent some of the emails that I had saved in the Drafts folder.

Sometimes the release of nuclear weapons gets authorized.

Henry Brown

Generally speaking, I have used the same process with a qualifier. I will write the rant wait some reasonable time, review/modify what I wrote and send it on. I am, and have been, of the belief that if the subject is worth some of my time “ranting” then it needs to be addressed in some manner if for no other reason to removing/reducing the potential requirements for another rant.

Samantha McFarland

I was given this advice years ago. It was followed up with….don’t actually write it in your email program. That way you don’t have to worry about the chance of sending. Of course, I also have learned that if I am writing any email with substance, I generally write it in Word and use “Ctrl-S” along the way. This gives you a better opportunity for editing as well as the less chance to lose important emails. So….not odd to write your thoughts in Word…

Also, be careful where you write AND what you write. Just because it’s on the computer at your desk at work, does not mean it is private. Sometimes, better to take 10 minutes at home to “vent” in a safe environment – but always better to vent at your desk privately than in front of others. I have learned as someone stated – don’t share all of your thoughts as they can come back to bite you at the most inopportune time.

Great thoughts! I enjoyed this immensely.

Joshua Millsapps

I’ve used the write in Word approach as well and it is good advice. All you have to do is accidentally send one mail to learn that copy and pasting into your e-mail program really isn’t that hard if you really need it to stay private.