New French legislation is forcing companies with greater than 50 employees to negotiate with their staff about after-hours email usage.
Is email usage just the responsibility of your employer, or are you part of the problem?
The French are using legislation to try and reverse the trend. But is law the only way to do this? Personally, I’m not in favour of more rules and regulations. Don’t we all have a personal responsibility to set our own standards of behaviour? Hopefully our various Health and Safety laws relating to stress are already sufficient, along with some applied commonsense.
The problem lies not in the tool, but in the expectations and behaviours of both sender and recipient. If everyone currently addicted to email (and I use ‘addicted’ deliberately) were to create a few sensible guidelines for themselves, the problem would be dramatically reduced.
Email was not designed as an instant response tool
Many users treat email as an instant messaging tool. However, it was first designed as an asynchronous tool, not a synchronous one. In other words, it was created as a method of getting a message to someone to deal with in their own time, similar to an answerphone message. Synchronous activity is when you’re talking with someone in real time.
Unless you’re actually doing email when a new mail arrives, the new item is a potential interruption. The irony is that if we try to handle interruptions as soon as they bounce at us, we become less effective, not more. Recent research shows at least 28% of a knowledge worker’s day is wasted due to interruptions. It’s not just the time taken with the interruption; it’s also the time lost in switching from task to task, and how long it takes to get back to the previous work – if we ever do.
This switching issue is compounded by allowing alerts on our smartphones for everything. Many people are pinged constantly with alerts for not only texts but also email, Facebook, other social media, and many of their apps. As a result, they never get a decent run at anything before their attention is stolen. A side problem is that we become addicted to constant interruptions and before we know it we’re endlessly checking to see what’s just arrived. Let it go!
We’re losing the ability to think creatively and deeply
This dodging from task to task is a form of multi-tasking. But, multi-tasking makes us less productive and less focused.
Maggie Jackson, author of Distracted, The Erosion of Attention in the Coming Dark Age, predicts that we are in danger of losing the capacity to think deeply and to contemplate. As a result, we will increasingly struggle to come up with creative solutions and problem-solve at a deep level. Frighteningly, I already know of several very bright people who have lost the ability to read a book. Their brains are constantly switching from thing to thing so fast that they struggle to concentrate on anything that requires more than a minute or two. How much deep thinking are they then capable of?
- The most important person to educate is you, because of the addiction issue. Start by turning off all notifications except texts on your phone, computer and any other devices. This includes turning off your email alert on your phone. At least 95% of what is currently pinging at you is not time-critical. (In Outlook 10 the path is File/Options/Mail/Message Arrival. Untick all 4 methods.)
- If you absolutely need to know if some key contact has emailed you, an advanced rule can be set in your email system that will only ring for that individual. (Check gettingagrip.com/how-to-control-your-inbox-use-rules/ . The Advanced Rules wizard gives this as one of the possible actions.)
- If your colleagues want to send mail in their own time, that’s their problem. You don’t have to respond, or even look, until you get to work. It’s rarely life-threatening, and if it is, someone will phone you.
- Educate the people around you as to how you will interact with them. This may include the boss, the manager, the team leader, and your colleagues. If the company insists you have your phone and email on all the time, do you really want to work there? No company is legally allowed to put their staff into danger or cause undue stress. Having no down-time is dangerous to your health and is stealing from your family and loved ones.
- Once your alert is off, educate yourself to extend the time between email checks. Try a short block of time every hour, say 5-10 minutes. Then take it out longer if feasible. Depending on the work you do, hourly should be enough for most roles. For many, 3 times a day is plenty and for some, once a day is enough.
- Once you’ve read, deleted, or scheduled further actions in your Calendar, get out of the Inbox, even if you’re still working on a comprehensive query. The key thing is not to be distracted by incoming mail, but to focus on one thing at a time.
- Turn off your emails at night, well before you go to bed. This includes personal mail.
- Avoid looking at work emails from home, unless it’s an exceptional circumstance.
- Do not look at your emails during the night.
- Turn off the phone at night and leave it out of the bedroom. If you’re using it for an alarm, may I remind you of those old-fashioned things called alarm clocks? They work very well!
- And finally, how about email-free weekends? They’re wonderful.
A version of this article also appears in Robyn’s regular NZ Herald Online column