Why Unread Messages Are Dangerous

When I was younger and living in China, I used to read the book “Harvard Girl Liu Yiting,” a bestselling parenting bible that detailed the education of Liu Yiting, who was one of the very few students from Mainland China admitted to Harvard College in that era. Most of the content of that book has escaped my memory, but there is one detail that has stuck with me all these years: In a section that talked about Yiting’s life at Harvard, it was said that every morning when she woke up, she received over 50 unread emails in her Inbox. As soon as I saw the number “50,” my young self gasped, and was overcome with jealousy. I want to be like Yiting and receive 50 emails a day!

To be honest, this was one of the major reason that made Harvard attractive to me (even though I didn’t even dare to think about the possibility of actually getting into Harvard).

Those were the days when I had just registered for my first email address (on the Chinese mail server Netease), and thought it was so novel and cool that I couldn’t wait to use it. I would sit in front of my computer staring at my Inbox, clicking “refresh,” waiting for that “Unread: 0” to increase into some non-zero number—even though I hardly knew anyone who used emails and who would have a reason to email me. Nobody in my middle school used email to communicate (most people used QQ or text messages). Every time a message did pop up—even though it was some random message that looked like spam—I felt extremely flattered. Someone is trying to reach me! I’m popular!

Ten years later, as I slowly made my way into the Western world, the number of unread emails in my Inbox has steadily increased. Email was the main form of communication in my high school in Singapore. There, I received around a dozen emails per day. But my email game was really ramped up when I became a freshman at Harvard in 2013. I slowly realized that Yiting’s 50 something unread emails was an understatement. If I wanted to, I could literally receive hundreds, if not thousands, of unread emails every morning as a Harvard student. All I need to do is to attend the extracurriculars fair at the beginning of freshman year, stop by every booth, and put my email address onto the mailing list of every organization to the delight of the upperclassmen manning the booths.

One day, I was asking a Harvard professor about her daily routine. She said, “I wake up an hour earlier than I need to each morning to do my emails.” I was intrigued by the phrase “Do my emails,” which I had never heard before. So people actually designate time each day to reply to emails. It seems to me, a person that likes structures and routines, a great habit—until I thought about my own habit in middle school, when I woke up an hour early each morning to learn English. One of my proudest achievements to date—becoming fluent in English—was largely the result of that habit. I pulled it through even if it sometimes meant I couldn’t get a lot of sleep, and it completely paid off.

There is a stark difference between waking up early to learn English and waking up early to do emails. With the former, I’m working toward a long-term goal, learning new things every day; it is a habit that is slowly making me a more knowledgeable, better person. With the latter, I’m responding to short-term needs, and I’m not sure I’m learning new things (One exception: I have learned that it is impossible to schedule a meal with another Harvard student over email). I’m also not sure that it is making me a better person.

In fact, when I wake up every day and see all the unread messages in my Inbox, that feeling of exhilaration I experienced 10 years ago has been replaced by weariness and even stress. More emails means more work. It’s like finding out you suddenly have new homework assigned, some of them due in the next hour, others due within a few days.

But more frustrating than stress is the fact that the messages are constantly interrupting me when I’m trying to do real work. At Harvard, I’m one of the leaders of a student club which runs a conference attended by 1,000 people each year. There were many hard things about running the forum, but I would say the most difficult part was not being able to focus on my tasks at hand due to constant interruptions. Because of the nature of event-organizing, there were many contingencies and urgent situations that demanded my attention every day. Thus I had to respond to most messages almost immediately. This made it almost impossible for me to concentrate when I was trying to write a paper or read a textbook. One morning I woke up and saw 283 unread messages on WeChat.

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Sometimes I feel like being the leader of the conference means being a full-time WeChat messages replier.
I used to have a very long attention span when I was in China—even though math was my least favorite subject, I could sit at my desk and do math problems for an hour straight without getting distracted even once. But now, I find it extremely difficult to do homework without checking my phone for even 10 minutes. Even as I tugged away my phone deep in my backpack as I sat in my class where the professor prohibits the use of electronic devices, I was constantly thinking about what is happening to my phone throughout the class. Who will I be hearing back from? How would so-and-so reply to the message that I sent out an hour ago? As soon as the professor concludes the class, I would whip out my phone like a drug addict who had been deprived of heroine for an hour, and anxiously open my messenger apps one by one.

At Harvard, I live in a dorm that’s pretty far from the main campus, so I commute to class by taking a 10-minute shuttle ride. When I was young, another habit that I was extremely proud of was that I carried around a vocabulary notebook at all times and memorized English words when I was commuting on buses. Time was so precious that I wanted to make use of all my idle moments to learn English. After I started taking French and Japanese classes at Harvard, I tried to revive this habit by carrying around a digital vocabulary book within an app on my phone. But it just doesn’t work. Each time I unlock my iPhone screen, my attention automatically drifts towards the little numbers in red on the top right corner of all my social media and messenger apps. It seems that “so-and-so liked your Facebook post” simply has more draw for me than trying to commit a new French word to memory.

It is natural that we humans always prefer the social over the intellectual: It creates more pleasure and takes less mental effort. The idea that “Someone is trying to talk to me” was flattering to me 10 years ago, and it is still flattering today. But I’m a stern believer in the statement that “We are the sum of what we use to fill up our free time.” If I were to interview someone for a job, I would ask: “If you have a free Sunday afternoon with absolutely no responsibilities or deadlines, what would you do?” Sadly, to many people nowadays, their actual answer (even though they may not admit to this) would be: mindlessly refresh Facebook Timeline/WeChat Moments/Buzzfeed articles/Youtube videos….

I’m not saying that there is no value in staying connected with others. But maybe it’s time to examine if our virtual communication has taken a toll on our ability to stay focused on long-term goals and projects that will determine where we are in 10 years. Technology may have made it easier for us to reach someone instantly, but it certainly has made it harder to be really, really good at something. Because becoming good at anything takes a lot of time and concentrated effort—and this is a fact of life that has stayed unchanged. The more technology makes it effortless for us to connect, the more self-discipline it takes to be truly extraordinary.

Zara Zhang

Zara Zhang

Zara Zhang is a senior at Harvard. You can contact her at zhang08@college.harvard.edu.