My Summer Email Vacation: what happened when I just stopped checking the post

If you read the blog regularly you know I’ve been focused a good deal lately on work/life balance issues, mental health and wellness for university staff and faculty, and the intensification of administrative downloading – which on its own is leading to a hell of a lot more email, make-work tasks, and generally unnecessary panic for me and my colleagues (and not just in the UK, where admin downloading has been the exhausting norm for a while now).

Which is a nice way of saying: I’ve been doing far too much fecking complaining lately about how tired I always am as a result of coping with work emergencies that are ABSOLUTELY NOT EMERGENCIES in the normal human sense of that term. (They aren’t even really that urgent. In fact, nobody is going to die, so who the hell cares?)

Certainly plenty of my complaints have been legit, and need to be laid at the feet of an increasingly teetering system in which academic professionals are invited, should they be Type-A like me, to take on responsibility for a whole bunch of stuff (like, oh, say, building and running a new academic program) for which universities no longer have enough staff, and then work ourselves into the ground. But let’s be honest: I am a tenured middle-aged woman with no kids. I have choices about which work I do, how much, and when. I have the choice to stop and give myself a break.

And yet, as I tried to explain to my therapist the other day, we work in a world chock-full of superficial choices that, at depth, amount to very little choice at all a lot of the time. This is a world of “flexible” labour that shames the break-takers and rewards those who are accessible and eager to help, 24/7. And the rewards are rarely just monetary (if they even are that! As a salaried prof I am one of the luckiest “flex” workers on earth, and I do know it). Working yourself to death also comes with an affective prize, the seductive Feeling Of Always Being Totally Checked In. (Don’t believe me? Click here to read a review of Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep.)

So sometime in the spring I decided this was it: I was making myself sick with overwork, and in the absence of a rescue helicopter from the fantasy world of Neoliberalism Is Over, I was going to have to take personal responsibility for my own wellbeing. Fuck the stuff that wasn’t going to get done on campus as a result; time to shift the priorities.

Step one in this gambit, I figured, needed to be to tune out. As in, to make all of the voices asking for things go away – if only for a little while.

I had to take a holiday, circa 2016, in which I DID NOT CHECK EMAIL.

For a whole week.

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Some of you might be rolling your eyes at me right now, but I suspect far more of you have just recoiled in horror. After all, we know what happens when busy professionals turn off the email for a week: hundreds of messages pile up. Coming back to that tsunami is worse than living with the daily, dull ache that comes with seeing the messages drip, drip, drip in.

I have long succumbed to the fear of turning off the email. Hell, at the ashram in Kerala I visited last summer I even checked messages once a day! But this time around I figured I’d hit the tipping point. Time to give email cold-turkey a try and see if the benefits outweighed the consequences.

Word up, people: they did!

Here’s how I managed the tune-out:

  1. I created a “rule” on my laptop mail program (Mac Mail) to send all incoming email from my work account into a folder I titled “holiday post”. (Mail users: go to “preferences”, click on the button in the pop-up window called “rules”, and add away.) That folder lived locally on my hard drive, and I moved it to the bottom of my folder roster in Mail so that if I happened to have my laptop open I would not see it. (And I didn’t: I was surprised how, after a day of being tuned out, I was not even tempted to look and see how many messages had come in.)
  2. I turned off access to work email on my phone and on my iPad. (Easy to do, apple users: go to “settings”, “mail, contacts, and calendars”, and click on the offending account. Turn mail to “off” just like you’d set, say, airplane mode when boarding a flight. Nothing is lost or disappears; the device just doesn’t look for post from that account again until you ask it to.)
  3. I checked my personal email account as normal, relishing the freedom that comes from being able to look at an empty inbox in the process. (SO FREEING!)

What happened when I came back to the land of typing and sending?

  1. The morning after my break ended, I checked the holiday post box and found 203 messages in it.
  2. After 45 minutes of gentle triage, over coffee, that number was down to 16 messages.
  3. Of those, roughly 8 needed answering. I chose to take an afternoon to deal with those, leaving all other work for after the email was up to date.
  4. I turned off the “rule” in my Mac Mail and reinstated my work email on my phone only after the triage was complete on my laptop.
  5. I chose not to reinstate work email on my iPad. After all, it’s mostly for reading the Guardian, watching Netflix and videos downloaded from the web, and looking at Facebook. There’s no need for it to be a work device! (That it took the email holiday to teach me how I use the iPad day-to-day is telling, I think.)
  6. I resumed working as normal, though at a slightly reduced pace. This week, only the one genuinely urgent (IE: overdue) thing got prioritised, and a couple of other tasks are on the roster for when that’s done, as a bonus, if I get there.

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How’d I fill all those free holiday hours? I used my away time to do some stuff in the garden I’d been meaning to do but never got to; I sat in my favourite cafe and did NOT do work; I walked the dog enough to satisfy her (not easy – trust me!). I was hoping to spend part of every (hot, crazy-sunny) day at my awesome local pool, but a bike accident involving a lot of road rash on my first email-free weekday (PAINFUL IRONY) scuppered that. Instead, I rode my bike a bunch, rowed, and chilled out in the back yard, not checking email. Revelatory!

Best of all, though, I was genuinely surprised (and pleased) at how easy it turned out to be to ignore my work email all week. I know those of you with strictly separated work and home devices (IE: work phone, home phone; work computer, home computer) might be a bit perplexed at this. But for those of us who work at least partly at home (and all academics do, some like me much more than others) it’s not practical to maintain separate devices. Which means we get in the habit of feeling the urge to check work email during leisure/non-work hours, and feeling it strongly.

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I found over the week I took off, though, that being tuned out felt way, way good. Much better than I could have guessed! And having given myself permission to feel free of work messages, free to use my time for my own pleasure and benefit, I became much more attached to that feeling than I could have predicted. The urge to look at work stuff literally melted away in the heat of high Ontario summer – so much so that, when I opened a work message that had been accidentally posted to my personal account, the light nausea in my stomach helped me realise, in my body, just how important the alternative feeling of freedom had become to my wellbeing. (And yes, I deleted it!)

Now, the challenge for me is figuring out how to carry the lessons from my week free of email into my regular work routine, and especially into the chaos of life during the teaching term. For one thing, I’ve already decided I’m going to do another email-free week in August, before things ramp up ahead of the start of term. Then, once we get into the term, I’m going to do something a bit wacky: I’m going to commit to not checking work email on weekends, ever. I’ll let the students know; I’ll set the email bounce. I’ll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear what you do to maintain work email boundaries; I know anecdotally from friends that there are some excellent strategies out there. Please leave yours in a comment!

Kim

PS: next up, the promised post on how the heck to say NO – crowd sourced from Women Who Know.

 

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