Monday, September 1, 2014

Celebrate Labor Day by Fixing Your Email Problem

I will honor Labor Day 2014 by fixing a longstanding cancer in my life: My smartphone is hereafter going to have an circumscribed role in my time and mind.

In many ways, my smartphone has been a great help with work-life balance. It has allowed much more flexible work hours: If I need to leave work early because my child is sick at school, or to run a family errand, I can still login to release that grant proposal by the 5pm deadline. And as an observational astronomer, there will always be odd hours when I need to be available to answer questions that are emerging while a collaborator is at the telescope. When on business travel, it helps me keep the day-to-day administrative work of research and grant related questions rolling along while I am sitting at the airport.

But then I catch myself checking email first thing in the morning while I am still in bed. Or checking it while cooking dinner for my family. Or checking it while helping my daughter with homework.

Poor Golem! The Ring could have been such fun. Wear it occasionally to disappear and mess with the goblins, admire its beauty, then put it away and get on with the business of eating fish and developing meaningful relationships. But no, you poor fool, you didn't set limits. See what happened?

Several of my neighbors, feeling that, much like The Ring, a smartphone couldn't be controlled, have done away with It entirely: They carry vintage flip phones that don't even handle text messages. They seem happy and not particularly hunched over.

But parenthood has tempered my desire for absolute solutions, and I have decided to live with a known evil. But how to control its power?

If you are inclined to deny that The Problem exists, then I urge you to read the excellent recent NYTimes article by Clive Thompson entitled "End the Tyranny of 24/7 Email".  Quoting research by Jennifer Deal, a senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership, Clive reminds us of the terrible truth: White-collar workers are typically reading and responding to email 13.5 hours per day. The article also points us to research showing that the average American first checks his or her phone by 7:09am, 38 percent check email while at the dinner table, and 69 percent will not go to bed without checking in on work email. In my experience, academia reinforces the always-on culture, and young scientists emerge believing that only the truly devoted (meaning always connected) will succeed.

The worst part is how email pervades my thoughts even when I am not actively reading it: It has made it increasingly difficult to lose myself in the simple enjoyment of the chaos of home life with 4 young daughters, and to savor the day-to-day challenges of everything from preparing meals to discussing school bullies. The relentless flow of email would bring me back to the blow-by-blow of referee's reports, advising students on manuscript editing, and responding to requests for letters and other input. The email check just before bed is the worst offender: I rarely remember my dreams, but surely they don't need a final injection of work-related stress before I kick off another night of begin chased through dark caverns by gangs of goblins.

The NYTimes article also reminds us that bosses set the tone: If your boss is sending you emails at 11pm, then the message is clear. Since I am now, in many ways, the boss, setting clear email limits won't just be good for me and my family, but might empower the next generation with a healthier perspective. (In truth, I already feel that many current grad students have a much better work-life balance than my cohort did in its time.)

So, here's a draft plan:
1. Don't check email until I get to work.
2. Don't check email from when I get home until the kids go to sleep (roughly 8pm. ish.)
3. After the kids go to sleep and before I do, check email ONLY IF I AM PREPARED TO ACTUALLY DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. (This is an important part of the plan: I can't pretend that I am not going to work some evenings. But what is the purpose of reading email if I have other plans such as date night, my weekly hockey game, or just plain downtime?)
4. Check email only once a day on weekends. (I run a number of projects and so I probably need to make sure at least once every 24 hours that a fire isn't raging.)

An important Number 5, which I haven't committed to yet, is to not SEND email in the evenings or on weekends. I am not sure quite how to make this work, but I am inspired by the 7-to-7 guidelines at some workplaces , wherein employees are requested not to send emails outside of the 7am to 7pm window. How lovely would it be to arrive at work and not have to face an inbox overflowing from email that came in overnight?

Have a great Labor Day, and let's keep those emails on the back burner until 8am Tuesday.