There were moments in the past few years when my inbox reached over 1000 unread emails. I felt like I was drowning each time I looked at my Outlook or my phone email app.
I remember when I used to take pride in how “connected” I was – how I could be contacted at almost any time and how I could connect with so many others in so many ways. Then I started to realize that being so connected was actually causing me to disconnect with those right in front of me – my family, my friends, my colleagues. I was missing so many moments because I was either staring at a screen or sitting there pondering how I should respond to a challenging email, tweet, or post.
I decided to take ALL notifications (other than texts) off my phone so I could stay more in the moment. It was about at this time when I realized (ok, my wife helped me to realize) I had a problem because although not having notifications helped me to focus more, I was still checking my phone many times each hour… and now I was not just checking the notifications but I was opening up the apps to see if there were notifications. #fail
New plan. I was still convinced that I needed to be connected for work purposes and that Twitter and Facebook were the problem so I took these apps off my phone. This worked wonderfully as I was not being drawn into conversations and I was able to be way more in the moment when I was either with family and friends or at work.
There was still a big problem. I felt that in order to keep up with the many (often over 100) emails each day, I needed to regularly check my emails on my phone. I was convinced that if I did not do this, I would fall way behind in the inbox battle. I started to read more books on increasing focus, organizing my mind and life, and disconnecting more often. In almost every one of these books, they gave the same recommendation: only access email from your computer and only do this at certain times during the time at work. I recall thinking that, “yeah, that may work for some people but, as a principal, I get over 100 emails a day… this is not going to work”. I continued this addictive pattern of regularly checking my emails on my phone to keep up with all the emails.
About a year ago, I happened to be sitting next to a colleague, George Kozlovic, a high school principal whom I have a ton of respect for and who seems to be well connected in the world of education, and he happened to share that he did not have email on his phone. Wait a minute… the principal of one of the largest high schools in the province does not need to have emails on his phone? I pressed for more info and he said the same thing that the books said – he checked it only from his computer when his purpose was to check emails. Hmmm…. Koz got me thinking.
Last summer, I needed some pure family time so I did it… I took email off my phone (I can just hear how “proud” my dad would be of me for this “gigantic” step… haha #notsomuch … as he shakes his head about people on those stupid phones). Yes, this is a no-brainer for many people like my dad but for me, this was a significant step. What if someone needed to contact me about the school? What if someone needed something? How many emails would I have when I checked in a few days??? It was the summer so I thought it would be an easier step to see if these were actually real questions to be worried about.
Freedom! Wow, the fact that I could not check my emails from work freed me up to just simply BE. I could BE a dad. I could BE a husband. I could BE me! I would forget where I left my phone more often as I didn’t check it. I was less interrupted and got into “flow” more often doing tasks I wanted to do (as research continues to show how ineffective multi-tasking is for getting anything done). After a couple weeks (yes, 2 weeks) of no emails, I checked my email expecting to learn something huge about school or work and to get that inbox drowning feeling again… but I had hardly any new emails and none of these were urgent. I did this for the rest of the summer checking emails every 1-2 weeks… but could I really do this during the school year?
I kept email off my phone and started the year. I knew that I could check webmail through a browser on my phone but the extra steps that are required somehow prevented me from checking email. Once I left work, I left my emails. On weekends, no email until Sunday night. When I was home… I was home. After 9 months of this, here is what I have learned:
- If you always check your email… you will think you always have email to read/write.
- By not checking emails so often, I write way fewer emails. Because I write way fewer emails, I get way fewer replies. The number of emails I get each day is about half of what I used to get.
- Many emails that I once thought I needed to respond to… I now know do not always require a response. The string of “reply-all” emails can be scanned and deleted rather quickly (unless it this conversation is a priority).
- Sometimes an email is sent to me and by the time I check in the morning, the issue has been resolved. By being so available, I was making myself more needed than was necessary. If it is something urgent, all staff and colleagues have my cell number but people do not want to interrupt family time. I think people believe that email is less intrusive as it is up to the receiver to check their inbox… which I now know is true. Staff will now send an email knowing that I will likely not respond until the next day.
- I am more focused during email time and I believe I write more effective emails. I found when I used to email on my phone, my emails were less professional and much quicker (especially my responses). Now, my emails are a bit longer but I feel have more clarity with a more professional tone.
- I can accomplish way more in a day than before. It takes minutes to get back to what we are doing each time we get distracted so being pulled away by emails causes everything else to take longer.
- I am winning the inbox war. My inbox rarely gets above 10-15 emails that require a response and I can often get this back down to zero in the morning before school.
- In the evenings and on weekends, I am only at work when I choose to be at work. I still need to work many weeknights and some hours on the weekends but I am not drawn into a work mindset by an email that comes on my phone. I can also now be on my computer working at night and not check my emails which also increases work efficiency.
I realize there are people that are reading this and thinking, “Wejr, man, you had a problem when you were tied to your phone that much”… and they would be right. I wasn’t alone, though. Even at work, in meetings, an email would be sent to our admin team and I would hear phone after phone buzz or beep and see people like me leave the moment to check our phones. That WAS me. I was so worried about missing out on something from outside that meeting… that I was missing out on the discussions taking place inside the meeting.
We live in a time where there is an expectation to always be connected. This is a trend and expectation that needs to stop. At our last admin meeting, our superintendent provided some wise words and encouraged us to avoid checking email between Friday evening and Sunday evening to help with wellness. Many educators have a concerning work:life (lack of) balance so strategies like this are important to implement. I encourage people to take an additional step to take the notifications off and, even better, get the emails off your phones.
Yup, I did have a problem with a bit of an addiction to checking emails and a problem with feeling like I was drowning in my inbox – but I think I have solved this one. By taking email off my phone, I am winning the inbox battle and living way more in the moment that is right in front of me.
Love this post. And I love that you are finding ways to be more in the moment.
I’ve taken to wearing a watch more often as a way to avoid the trap you fall into when you look at your phone. Why? Simply put I was checking the “time” on my phone multiple times an hour. Then opening apps and checking things out that didn’t need checking. Now I simply look at my watch to see what time it is and then get back to what I was doing before.
For an interesting take on connectivity I recommend a book called “The End of Absence” by Michael Harris.
So true… any time I would pull out the phone, I would check so many different things – social media, email, stocks, weather… talk about distracted! Funny that you mention that book. This was a book that was given to me by a teacher.. and one of the books that smacked me upside the head to change. Victoria Woelders said to me one time, “the students and staff see you walking the halls regularly looking at your phone” in a passing conversation. This is not what I wanted to she gave me some extra motivation by buying me the book! 🙂 Congrats to you on the new blog, btw!
Thanks for sharing your journey Chris. My hope is that while we all find a way to bring more balance into our lives, we also recognize that everyone has different ways of managing their workloadss. As an administrator and a mom, I’m quite often navigating a state of perpetual guilt… But that guilt is largely self inflicted. I absolutely know there is no judgement in your words as you share your own journey and that your intention is to support and lift up others. I am where you started out- constantly connected. For now, it’s the best that I can do to manage the challenges of a relatively new role. Two years in, I haven’t found a better way yet. But I suppose that’s why it’s called a journey…
All the best!
Yes… the guilt. I know that well (but, of course, not as a mom) as I would be so worried someone would need something and I would not be there to help. The funny thing is that there have been so many times when teachers and staff have reminded me to power down and disconnect… go be with my family. Even when I say, call or text if there is something urgent – it is SO rare for someone to do this. I also am trying to be better at not texting colleagues or staff at night and on weekends… unless it is more for a social purpose. It truly is a journey but I wish I learned the positives of disconnecting a few years ago…. and clearly I still have room for improvement considering that it is 11:30 and I am replying to a comment! haha
Hey Chris, great post. I’ve fasted from notifications on my phone before and found it to be a useful move. Unfortunately, lately, I’ve let it creep back in and turned many of them back on. I guess I need to fix that.