Do you remember the days when the only way to access your work or email was through the huge computer sitting on your desk? We had to drive all the way to the office if we wanted to get anything done, and most of us were excited to finally have the flexibility to work from the comfort of our homes.
Many people are receiving an average of 150 email messages each day, and sadly some are receiving so much more. If each message takes just one minute to handle, we would need to spend more than 2 hours of each work day just to keep up with our inbox. It can feel like a never-ending tsunami of work that steals our attention and keeps us from getting to the ‘real work’.
Cost of flexibility
The ability to get things done when you are not in the office is truly helpful. It has allowed parents to adjust their schedule to spend more time with their kids, provided a big productivity lift during snow days, and saved countless weekends in the office. But there is a cost that comes with this flexibility.
Consider the evenings spent checking email while also trying to spend time with your family. Or the great shots you missed at the game because you were preoccupied. While you are technically ‘present’, you are operating in a state of continuous partial attention. When you try to pay attention to multiple things at once, it leads to mistakes, added stress, and the feeling that something else is always more important.
Habit, assumption or expectation
So why do we check email as soon as we wake up in the morning, immediately before going to bed at night, while we are waiting at stoplights, or between plays at the game? Consider for a minute if you are doing it out of habit, because you assume it will make you seem more productive and dedicated, or because it is truly an expectation that you respond to messages at night and during the weekends.
It can be hard to admit that we are only checking email because it is easy. Our phones are generally within reach, and when things get quiet for a minute or two we reactively reach for some form of stimulation. Email and social media provide a quick boost that we mistake for productivity, but can quickly steal our time and attention.
Perhaps you assume that responding to email late at night or over the weekend shows others that you are dedicated and working hard. Years ago I was guilty of occasionally drafting email messages that I waited to send until just before bed because ‘everyone else was doing it’. I didn’t want them to think I slacking off just because I preferred to spend the evening with my family.
Have you asked your manager about the expectations regarding email? Do you truly need to check multiple times throughout the weekend? Is there anything that can’t wait until Monday or the next morning?
Leading by example
Most leaders will tell you they don’t expect you to answer email at night, on the weekend or during vacations…but they will continue to send you messages at night, on the weekend and during their own vacations. Leading by example means recognizing that you are modeling what success looks like at your company by your actions, not your words. If your teams never know when you are going to send something urgent via email, they are going to instinctively check and deal with a level of perpetual stress that comes from the fear that they are going to miss something important. If you need to work on your email after hours, save them as drafts and send the next working day. Your teams will appreciate the chance to finally unplug!
Determine the latest time you truly need to check email during the week and on the weekend – think of it as the ‘last call’ for messages that can’t wait. That doesn’t mean you have to respond just because you checked; you can scan for things that can’t possibly wait, and leave everything else for the next working day. If you have to work on email after hours, save the new messages as a draft and send it when you are back in the office.