Call this a lesson of midcareer. It could apply to any stage of my career, but it seems to have gotten worse, not better, as I advance and feel both flattered and obligated to say yes to the increasing number of invitations to do stuff.
Every semester, I try to start with a fairly clean e-mail inbox. For me, this means fewer than 100 messages in the active queue. But somehow, by a month in, I'm in over my head. And somewhere around week 6, I start setting the important stuff aside with the following thought:
"This is important. It demands my attention. But I'm being pulled in three directions at once, so I can't give it the attention it warrants. So I'll set it aside and answer it tonight. Or tomorrow. Or once I'm through this stack of exams."
And of course, by the time we get to tonight, or tomorrow, or when the stack of exams is finished, there have been 200-300 more e-mails, and 3 more urgent tasks, and the thing that demanded more attention than I could give it has gotten no attention at all. And I've completely forgotten about it.
That's right: the more important something is, the less likely it is ever to get answered.
And then, the end of semester comes, and I start to dig my way out. And I discover these things, and I realize that the person on the other end has no idea what has been going on this semester; they only know that I appear to have rudely blown them off. And then I have to decide whether to slink off or face up to them and ask whether they still are interested, even though it's 6-10 weeks later.
I've done this three times in the past week. Here are the results:
1. The person in question contacted me after I'd decided that the best thing to do was assume they'd given up on me, and hope that they forget all about me so the word doesn't get around. They asked if I was still interested for submitting an abstract. And my answer was an enthusiastic YES! and an abstract that I submitted within 48 hours lest I lose track of it again. All is, apparently, well.
2. Emboldened by the forgiveness of one set of people, I reached out to another who had patiently e-mailed me twice with no response. I did this as I was getting to the bottom of my inbox: Profuse apologies; It sounds like an interesting project, but I couldn't do it on the specified deadline. Would they be interested in later? Response came right back: No thanks, and not happy with me. gulp.
3. And then I found one even more buried, where I had actually begun a correspondence, then the whole thing had lapsed... on March 1. Jesus. I'm a hot mess. I just tried the approach I tried with #2: profuse apologies, yes I'm interested, yes I could make the deadline, here's what I'd do.
We'll see how this goes.