Media / Workplace

Breaking it to your email: “I think we need more time apart.”

Checking emailWhen you’re connected to your email – to the tune of checking it every few minutes – you’re constantly interrupting flows of thought or attention that may be better focused elsewhere… like on your partner or child.

I was browsing though articles the other day and came across a couple of pieces about working motherhood. In one, the woman, an owner of two hotels, checks her email all the time: days, evenings, weekends. In another article, the woman was in bed with the laptop in front of her and she was on the phone (I hope checking voicemail messages), while her husband slept. I was disturbed by the way both these hectic lifestyles portrayed working at all hours as a kind of badge of honor. And I know in our US culture, and I would assume some others as well, that many live to work, rather than work to live.

So what’s wrong with this? It’s taking work out of the bounds of moderation. It can damage our relationships, we neglect other duties, it negatively impacts us physiologically. (The article’s main point was that it can give you a sore neck to work in bed, so it’s better to do it at a desk – never mind that one should create clear boundaries between home and work.) True, our identities are often defined by what we do professionally, and thereby it’s difficult to just be a parent, or spouse, for a moment. But it doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth trying to be focused in appropriate measure.

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I first started working from home in 2004. My wife and I had just married and were in our first apartment. It was a one bedroom, which meant my office was to one side of the living room. Over time, I found myself constantly going over to check and see if any emails had come in, to which I might need to reply. For me, all hours were work hours. I realized that I was being consumed by this work and struggled with creating boundaries for myself. The solution was two-fold: 1) Turn off the computer when I wasn’t working and 2) eventually move to another apartment where I had a separate office, to provide physical boundaries between work and non-work. Now, with the ever-present smartphone at my hip, creating those boundaries yet again takes some extreme discipline.

Since last summer, I’ve tried to keep my email checking to moderate levels, while setting up the following rules for myself:

  1. Do not check email until at least 10am or 11am. Preferably wait until noon.
  2. Check only once or twice more in the afternoon.
  3. Unsubscribe to every list but those which truly are important. (If you find yourself deleting without looking, or if they distract you from what you really need to be doing, then they’re not that important.)
  4. Do not send or reply to any work related emails over the weekend. If possible, don’t even look at the emails – simply scanning can be distracting.

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I’m not perfect at implementing the above, but I strive, and actually derive some great benefits. What do I get from imposing this discipline?

  1. I get some awesome work done in the mornings. I’m focused, efficient, and undistracted. Critical projects that need attention, such as writing blog posts, drafting proposals / plans, hammering out the to-do tasks, get the full thrust of my creative energy. My mantra is: “I’m a laser!”
  2. It doesn’t take as long to get things done, since I’m not interrupting myself every 10 or 15 minutes to see if emails have come in.
  3. I’m detaching my sense of self-worth from the amount of email I get. The more email I see I get, the more people must need me or respect my thoughts, right? This is silliness. Self-worth is a spiritual deal and I remind myself it doesn’t need to be validated by other people.
  4. My relationships are given greater importance in my life. I’m pretty confident no one says “I wished I checked my email more often” when on their death bed. Rather, I can be fully present in my family’s life: to appreciate, to attend, to discipline, to accompany.
  5. I experience less stress. I can’t worry about something if I don’t know about it, right? If something is truly critical and requires immediate attention, people give me a call or text. Then it’s handled and done with and I can go back to attending to life.

You’d be surprised at how few things are so critical, that they can’t wait until the next pre-determined time when email is checked. Which just leads me to appreciate how much of the incessant need to look and respond to email is actually created by ourselves. And if it’s of our own doing, then we can take the steps to ratchet it down a bit, bring it into moderation, and then live more fully with ourselves and the world around us.

How do you handle emails?

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Photo credit: Ed Yourdon / Foter / CC BY-SA

4 thoughts on “Breaking it to your email: “I think we need more time apart.”

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