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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Are You Guilty of Emotional Tomfoolery? (We Are)

The word “tomfoolery” is really underutilized.

But it’s the perfect word to describe what you’re doing when you open an obnoxious email from an obnoxious person, you imagine responding but don’t type anything, then you read some other emails—and that night at 9 PM, when you’re online shopping for kitchen supplies, you see that email again. And again.

The next morning, it’s still there. Taunting you. Instead of spending 60 seconds writing, “Sorry, I can’t work for free,” or “Sorry Mom, I’m marrying Josephine, and we’re both wearing tuxedos,” you’ve looked at the same email 16 times and done nothing, while experiencing 16 rounds of agony and misery.

This is emotional tomfoolery.

And it’s just the start. Here are some more time- and energy- wasters to cut out of your life forever.

1. Re-reading Things You’ve Sent or Posted

How many times have you written someone a really thoughtful email, and then gone into your sent messages and re-read the email? Maybe re-read it twice? Three times? Even though you went over it quite a few times before sending it?

Same with blog posts, articles, and term papers. Why do we re-read something when we know it’s already right? Usually just to congratulate ourselves. We do it for pleasure. But there are far greater pleasures to be had than re-reading a very professional pitch you sent to your boss.

Instead, stay out of your sent messages folder. All you’re doing is emailsturbating. This applies to your Twitter feed, your Instagram posts, long-ago published blog posts—you get the picture. Get your work done instead. Use the saved time for happy hour or House of Cards.

2. Letting Emails Sit Around When You Know What You’re Going to Say

We usually do this because what we have to say is awkward or will disappoint the other person. Too bad, recipient! Life is awkward and disappointing sometimes! Don’t prolong the agony.

In “How to Be Productive When You’re a Little Tipsy,” I suggested writing drafts—Drafts, I say! Do not send!—of difficult emails when you’ve loosened up after a couple glasses of wine. Then look over those emails in the morning, remove any F-bombs, and send in the sober light of day.

Another option: If you find yourself writing more or less the same not-fun email over and over, create a canned response in Gmail (or a template in a document on your computer) with a stock response. For example: “I don’t think our professional relationship is working out, and I’m letting you know that I’ll be resigning as your designer.” Of course you’ll need to make some edits every time you actually send this email, but this way you only have to write the difficult part once.

3. Trying to Defer Decisions to Others for No Good Reason

In the pursuit of “Inbox Zero,” many people reply to emails that say, “Lunch sometime?” with responses like, “Love to, what days are you free?”

Sure, you got an email out of your inbox for the moment, but you’re just sowing the seeds of more emails. Open your damn calendar and propose a time and place, with a short list of other available dates. Do Don Draper or Sheryl Sandberg say, “Sure, sounds fun! I’m free whenevs. Your call. Let me know?” Cut the crap and be decisive, even if your decision is arbitrary.

Same with work emails along the lines of, “How should we respond to X?” The person wouldn’t have asked you if you weren’t qualified to answer. Answer. Move on. If you’re really not sure, give suggestions and ask for an opinion, or give very specific questions that would help you answer it. Don’t respond with more vague questions, and don’t CC half the office to get their opinions, too.

4. Checking Out Your Competitors. Repeatedly.

Does your mom send you articles (like this!) about people much younger than you who have accomplished much bigger things than you have? “I thought you would love this article—you have so much in common with her except you’re older, and not as accomplished, and less good-looking!”

When you find yourself checking out a competitor online, ask yourself, “Am I going to do anything with this information?” If you want to follow all her Twitter followers, have at it! If you want to study her landing page or her LinkedIn profile to improve your own, great! If you just want to snark about her while also feeling bad about yourself, shut the laptop.

I really mean it. If you find yourself wallowing in a toxic comparison, physically close your laptop, or shut down your desktop computer. Stand up. At very least, go get a glass of water. Ask yourself if there’s any productive reason to keep “researching” your competition. If there is, add it to your to-do list and do it another time, when you’re not feeling shitty. If there isn’t, ask yourself what you should be doing instead to become just as accomplished, so that you won’t fall back in the hole when you go back online.

That’s it—four simple ways to cut the emotional tomfoolery. Now get back to work!

Photo of nervous woman courtesy of Shutterstock.