Advice From the Man Who Sent the First Email

Step away from the inbox.

David McNew / Reuters

The man who sent the first email is not overwhelmed by email.

In our culture, it seems, this is unusual. While everyone else is lifehacking, streamlining, Slacking, and marking-as-read—all with the goal of destroying the very thing their inbox was set up to receive—Raymond Tomlinson isn’t sweating email at all.

Tomlinson, the principal scientist at BBN Technologies, is widely credited with having sent the first email across the ARPANET back in 1971. Today, he says he checks his inbox “fairly frequently,” but only if he’s not focused on something else. “I can go a whole day without checking it,” he told me. “I occasionally go a whole weekend without checking my email. I think it’s a question of setting expectations. If you answer email within five minutes of receiving it, people start expecting that. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

And besides, he points out, email as an item on a person’s to-do list is now joined by any number of buzzing, dinging, distracting messages that pop up on mobile devices: texts, Facebook mentions, tweets, news alerts, and whatever other push notifications a person has enabled. Smartphones now occupy the social space that pocket watches and cigarettes once held—they are the thing you turn to, repeatedly, in an idle moment. More than two-thirds of adults in the United States own them.

“People can’t walk these days without having one hand balancing a smartphone,” Tomlinson said. “If that’s the way people are going to live, it is the case that something that vibrates in their hand is going to get their attention more quickly than an email.”

Tomlinson, for his part, has limited distractions. He only recently joined Facebook. “And I don’t have a cellphone, so I don’t do texting,” he told me. “I’m a Luddite in that regard ... [People] are mostly careful to not be too surprised, but I think they are.”