Every day is not a crisis.
Yes, there may be a few times — a big important project, a looming deadline, an actual emergency — when it's necessary to check email round the clock. But other than that, do you really need to check your email constantly?
Of course not. Everyone seems to agree on that much. Research shows that fixating on your email can be stressful and counterproductive. A new study by the University of California, Irvine, found that "those with no email reported feeling better able to do their jobs and stay on task, with fewer stressful and time-wasting interruptions."
People who take a break from email were more productive and better able to concentrate than their email-obsessed peers, according to UCI Professor Gloria Mark, who co-authored the study. "Email vacations on the job may be a good idea," she said. "We need to experiment with that."
But how? Start by learning how to wean yourself from the 24/7 email cycle. Timothy Ferriss, author of the New York Times bestseller The 4-Hour Workweek, offers up dozens of tips for how to break the addiction and become an "email ninja." Here are a few:
• Go on a schedule. Set up a set time for checking your email and letting people know what your email schedule is (by including your schedule at the bottom of your email). Then encourage people to call you if they need something right away. Ferris also suggests answering your email in batches — going offline while you do it so you're not distracted. "Ensure that your first batch is around 10 or 11 a.m. and never first thing in the morning."
• Don't use your email inbox as your to-do list or to send yourself reminders. If you use your email as your reminder system/to-do list, you're pretty much setting yourself up to check your email constantly.
• Don't send "before I forget" emails at night or on the weekends. Ferriss says this sets up the expectation of 24/7 work hours — not only for you but for the people you're emailing at all sorts of crazy times. Stick to the schedule.
• Delete often. Though we may feel we need to answer every email, we just don’t. “Ask yourself, 'What’s the worst that will happen if I delete this?'" says Ferriss. “If the answer isn’t too bad, just delete it and move on. You can’t reply to everything."
• Keep it short. Keep replies to five sentences or less, which forces you to be concise and to get to the point.
Once you’ve done this, you may be ready for an email vacation. But what if your employer isn’t as open to that as you are? What is a reasonable time to stop checking email at the end of the day, when there's no real crisis? What is reasonable for an employer to expect, and how much uninterrupted time is it realistic for employees to have?
The answer, unfortunately, is that there is no magic answer, says Danny Bader, a productivity consultant with McGhee Productivity Solutions. "There are cultures where bosses are firing off emails at 9, 10 or 11 at night. You can make a choice to not answer and then determine what's the consequence. If I choose to disconnect at 6 p.m. and I'm not going to get on until the next morning, what happens? If that's not acceptable to my boss and the company, I may have to consider going somewhere else."
Start by talking with your employer to understand their expectations, Bader says. Just be prepared to dislike the answer. "You can have a conversation with your boss and say 'This is not what I signed up for,' and see what happens," he says. "My advice is to look at your job on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best. Then decide how comfortable the working arrangement is. If it's an 8 or 9 — you got a promotion and like the work and the money, you're able to afford a bigger house, you need to pay for your kids' schools, you like being able to go on big vacations — then that's that. But if look at the work environment and say it's crazy, you either have a conversation to change it, or you leave. "
Bader says that for him, and others, life is too short to spend time working for people who don’t understand that decent work-life balance can actually lead to more productive, happier employees. He tells me the story of a woman at a pharmaceutical company where he had done consulting. She had a demanding job, but she also had two ailing parents who were not going to be around much longer, and she wanted to spend time with them. So she approached the job this way: 'They rent me from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. After that, I'm done.'
And yes, Bader does check his email in the evenings and even on the weekends. But he limits it to 1 to 2 hours per day because he understands that doing those small check ins with work allow him to have the work-life balance he wants. On weekdays he takes time for himself. He may go for a run at noon each day, spend time with his wife and kids, and work on extra projects, like writing a book. That means that on weekends, he has to put some time in for his employer. "It's common sense when we think about it — but it's not common behavior. It's about how we shift behavior. The best way to change is practice. "
Bader offers up a lot of the same advice that Ferriss does about getting email under control. And he says if you don't want to answer your email at all hours when there's no crisis, then don't. When it's really urgent, ask them to call you instead.
"We train people how to treat us. If you're continually on, people expect you to be continually on, " Bader says. "If you change how you act, people will start to respond to that." — CG
Image courtesy of flickr user Scott Beale/Laughing Squid