I’ll begin with a confession. When I’m up at four in the morning suffering from insomnia, the first thing I do is grab my phone and check email – all my email accounts. More often than not, I find benign messages. These are from listservs, or the occasional night owl student. Sometimes I even find a gem – a former student thanking me for my indelible mark on his or her life. But other times, I find a message that prolongs my sleeplessness; the complaint or request for information that will take hours to generate.
I’m not alone in my email addiction. According to Mashable, many of us average over two hours a day on emailing, and extending that time into our personal life may be detrimental. I have also noticed a growing impatience when it comes to email: so many of us demand an immediate response, and this has forced email into a near synchronous experience. In fact, one report states that nearly 75% of workers return email within one hour. This was my experience in July when I was teaching an online section of composition. One Sunday, a student sent the same email to both my regular email and D2L email three times within the span of an afternoon, the implication being that they were expecting a rapid response.
As my concern grows for how much my academic life disrupts my personal life, I have wondered how I can become more strategic when checking email. One idea came last semester as I read a colleague’s syllabus submitted for an award I was adjudicating. She had the most revolutionary statement next to her email address: “Please note that I do not answer emails from 5PM on Friday until 9AM on Monday.” My first thought was, Should I do this? My second thought? I probably won’t. Checking my email is an obsession – one that may be counterproductive, but an obsession all the same.
In a fascinating article in the New York Times, “Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain,” Daniel J. Levitin describes two networks of the brain: task positive and task negative. Specifically, he says:
This two-part attentional system is one of the crowning achievements of the human brain, and the focus it enables allowed us to harness fire, build the pyramids, discover penicillin and decode the entire human genome. Those projects required some plain old-fashioned stick-to-itiveness.
Levitin argues that this two-part system works best in a “daydreaming” mode – those minutes filled with tasks that don’t require much effort, like showering or shopping. Email (and Twitter, Facebook, etc.) are not daydreaming modes. In fact, constantly checking your email could potentially prevent you from getting work done. Levitin suggests having specific time blocked for email or social media.
So how do we avoid falling into the email trap – when checking and responding to messages encroached upon our much-needed personal time? The Muse has a helpful guide, which suggests management apps as a potential solution. Options include the Email Game, which sets a timer and provides positive reinforcement for quickly cleaning out that inbox.
Another suggestion worth considering is simply deleting work email inboxes from personal devices. Just today I removed my academic email from my personal iPad. I plan on using it for downtime – reading, journaling, and doing crossword puzzles – and definitely not for dealing with an avalanche of student and colleague requests.
The French are perhaps closest to solving this problem: in an effort to better their work-life balance, French employees now have the “right to disconnect,” which means saying no to letting work encroach upon their downtime. While I do not see the United States having any such policy, maybe we in academia can do the same in our own ways.
ProFmagazine wants to know: how have you disengaged from the email, and what tips do you have for our readers?