I used to check work emails at 3am. Yes folks, that’s 3 o’clock in the morning. Here’s an insight into my old routine: wake up, pick up phone, click on email icon. Or, wake up, pick up phone, go downstairs for glass of juice, click on email icon, look like burglar with tiny torch illuminating face.
Later, on my way to work, I’d be checking emails again. Walking along the path, head dropped, sliding my finger down the screen, refreshing all the way to the Metro station. And then I’d have another look whilst on the Metro, because, you know, something might have happened.
Home from work. iPad out. There’s that email icon again. With numbers next to it. YOU’VE GOT EMAIL. EMAILS. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, LOOK AT THE EMAILS.
I suspect you may be getting the point. I won lots of lovely prizes last year. But funnily enough, the one I most deserved but didn’t get was “Compulsive Work Email Checker of the Year“. I am saddened this prize does not exist. And also not to have received what would have undoubtedly been a delightful granite bust of someone looking really miserable.
Because the compulsion to check work emails out of hours is not fun. Even if you’ve convinced yourself it makes you a really efficient colleague (spoiler: it doesn’t. More on this later). Or that your job is so important that you can’t possibly not check emails (again, hate to break this to you, it’s not). Or that it will make you feel better, because you’ll be ultra prepared for any request, new piece of information, or coming of the apocalypse.
That last one was my personal favourite. I was emotionally tied to checking my emails because I like to be super ready for all eventualities. If I could see at 3am what I needed to do later that day, I could run through my plan of action. If I read that email asking for something during my dinner, I had an entire evening to work out how I was going to reply. If I responded to the email directly before the funeral (yep, true story) then it would all be sorted for at least the next two hours, and no-one would be waiting for me to reply.
Something had to give (and it did). But, really, if your partner is telling you, with worry all over their face, that the first thing you did when you left the cinema was to look at your work emails (true story, again), then you should be getting those signals loud and clear. Time to sort this out. So I did. And I’m sharing this because I was that person. And I read so many articles, like this and this, and I still came up with really creative reasons as to why it wouldn’t work for me.
If you’ve clicked on this because you too have an unhealthy relationship with work emails, then please rest assured that you can break that cycle. Honestly. You can. And life will be so much better. I promise.
This is what I did. I’m not saying it’ll work for you, but hey, if I can change the habits of a lifetime anyone can. Here we go:
Take emails off your portable electronic devices
I know, I know. You should have seen my face when people used to tell me they didn’t have emails on their mobile. Now, I wait with glee to be on the receiving end of that face. The other day I think I may have sung “I don’t have emails on my phoooone” to a colleague, so happy that it was true. And then I waited for (and got) the face. It’s a swift combination of “are you technologically incompetent?” (nope), “have you joined a cult?” (not that I know of) and “you must get nothing done” (I do).
What would we have done before we had emails on our phones/tablets, eh?
How about this? Be more prepared. I am actively more prepared because I can’t rely on my phone to tell me what I’m doing or going to do. I print off travel plans days in advance and put them in my bag. I work out what I’m going to focus on each week, and then stick to it. I know what I’m doing and when I’m doing it because I have a really clear idea as to how the week is going to pan out. I’m no longer running around relying on a device to tell me what’s next.
Genuinely (I promise I’m not making this up), I’ve become more efficient since I stopped checking emails out of hours. In the last few weeks, I’ve taught students, written an article, reviewed four colleagues’ teaching and filled in the associated forms, set up a writing retreat (and retreated), corresponded with over 60 individuals for a large project I’m working on, got an international team of wonder lawyers together, mentored staff for various awards, sorted out an abstract, marked coursework, and second marked. And that’s just what I can think of right now. I’ve done more. All in work time. I’m quicker. I make decisions with less hesitation. Rather than leave something to simmer*, I deal with it in work because I no longer have the ability to draft emails late into the night.
Be out of the office (like, really out of the office)
The best thing about having email free devices is that when you are not at your desk, you are really not at your desk. My lunch used to consist of speeding along, phone in hand, to the closest sandwich shop frequently checking whether anything was occurring at work and not really paying attention to anything else. Today, I had a wander for half an hour and realised that The Doobie Brothers’ What A Fool Believes was playing in one of the shops. The Doobie Brothers were probably on all the other times I went for my lunch. But I wouldn’t have noticed, because I was too busy being busy. And that, my friends, is a travesty.
You’re also not at the office when you’re eating breakfast, or having dinner. But you force yourself to be there in spirit if you’re sitting with your phone/tablet on your knee/table/cushion etc. A head full of work, all the time.
When I leave the office now, I really leave it.
Check your emails at specific times of the day
Back in the day (those dark, miserable, granite bust deserving days), my working from home consisted of repeatedly looking at my emails whilst I worked. So I was on top of anything coming in. And totally distracted. And waiting to be distracted.
Now, I have a lovely out of office reply that says I’ll be checking my emails at 12pm and 3pm and I’ll respond as soon as I can. And I do. But outside of those times I’m getting on with things that are important, like reviewing a colleague’s application for HEA Fellowship, or designing teaching activities, or writing a section of my next article. And I can give those tasks my full attention. Because I’m not on the lookout for the little envelope in the corner.
My other half was overjoyed when he realised I had done this. Primarily because it was his idea, but also because I had long rebuffed his suggestions for dealing with emails with things like “but I need to be available” and “what if I don’t know what’s happening?”. Back in the day, the idea of checking email at certain times would have sent me into howls of laughter. How would people cope if I didn’t reply right away? Turns out they’re fine, actually. I get things done. I’m clear about when I’m dealing with emails. No-one has batted an eye at my new routine.
Pay your colleagues a visit
The more you learn about your own email habits, the more you realise how you impact on other people. I now make a special effort to use email as minimally as possible. If I need to attach something – fine. If I’m working from home and have to get a quick message out – that’s okay too. But if it’s a longer chat I need, I pick up the phone or go pay my colleagues a visit.
There’s two reasons for this. First, I’m really conscious that I add to other people’s inbox and I know how that feels. I’m actively trying not to do that (still working on that one). Secondly, talking to people is nice. You can do nuance when you chat. You can be funny and not come across as weird. You can sort things out together in 5 minutes, rather than spend 15 minutes constructing an email, then waiting for a reply, then when one comes in take another 10 minutes sorting out a response.
If it’s urgent, someone will call
Things can wait. If they can’t, and its urgent, you’ll get a phone call. No-one emails you to tell you your dog has gone missing in the woods.
Some final thoughts….
I very nearly didn’t write this blog. I’m not a fan of evangelising, and I’m certainly not out to be an ‘advice’ guru. But then I read Melissa Febos’ amazing article Do you want to be known for your writing, or your swift email responses?. Everything Melissa said rang true. But she truly hit me in the gut when, right at the end of the article, she wrote Do Not Die of Emails. She’s absolutely right. Email is great, and after writing this blog I’ll probably send one or two. But, when email starts to control you, rather than the other way around, it will sap your soul.
I’m going on holiday tomorrow. Las Vegas. I’ve sorted everything out, put it all in place. I’ve done last minute urgent favours for colleagues (crucially, taming your emails does not mean you turn into a selfish idiot). And I’ve got my out of office ready. This time (for the first time in over a decade) when I write “I’m out of the office”, I actually will be. And it will be joyous. And I will be on holiday, and return a refreshed and better colleague. See you on the other side.