When I returned to work after taking most of January off, I didn’t have a single email to read or respond to.
It’s not that they stopped arriving over the break. The flow slowed over Christmas and new year, but it didn’t dry up. There were still hundreds sitting in my inbox on my first day back.
The trick is that back in December I set an out-of-office reply to inform people I was taking a break and would delete everything in my inbox on my return.
One of my former bosses (and role model) taught me this years ago. It’s based on two principles: replying to emails is not your actual job; and effective email management is partly about managing expectations.
With that in mind, there are three rules I follow to deal with email when I take a holiday. First, my out-of-office reply states the dates of my absence and my intention to delete emails. Second, I provide the names of co-workers who can help in my absence — I’m not trying to frustrate anyone. Most importantly, I delete the Gmail app off my phone so I’m not tempted to look at work emails while I’m away.
A report by the University of South Australia in 2013, titled Morning, Noon and Night suggests nearly 23 per cent of full-time workers check work email when they’re on annual leave. It’s become more prevalent since the rise of web-based email and smartphone apps. Yet the flip-side of the figures is that three out of four people don’t check email while they’re on leave. It’s not an obligation — yet.
I’ve never missed anything essential by setting an out-of-office reply like this, but I have definitely preserved my sanity. My holidays are more relaxing, and I don’t feel like I’m in mad catch-up mode in my first week back at work.
If anyone has disapproved of my technique, they have never told me. Mostly people say they love it. They either decide to copy it or they admire it but don’t feel they can be so bold themselves. I don’t understand the hesitation.
There are very few people for whom email is the actual core job. Perhaps if you work in online customer service or as an executive assistant, for example. For everyone else, email is meant to be a communication’s tool that assists you in doing your job, but it is not the actual job itself.
I don’t know about you, but my time is better spent coming up with creative ideas and proactively setting my own agenda than reacting to what’s in my inbox.
There’s plenty of evidence that shows the detrimental effect of checking email constantly. It dilutes our attention, making it hard to concentrate deeply.
One workplace study from 2002 found it took people 64 seconds to recover their train of thought after an email interruption. Yet 70 per cent of emails were reacted to within six seconds of their arrival, and 85 per cent within two minutes. A 2006 study suggested most people estimated they check emails once an hour but actually did so every five minutes.
Research from 2004 found that email eats a quarter of the working day for white collar workers.
Technology can also create barriers between colleagues, if conversations occur over email by default.
Dr Fiona Kerr, a professor in neural and systems complexity at Adelaide University, spoke about this at the Wired for Wonder conference last year. She says the problem with technology is that it’s designed to make us want to use it all the time, but humans are hardwired to interact face-to-face. There’s something called “interpersonal neural synchronisation”, which means that when two people talk in person, their brain patterns synchronise, releasing beneficial chemicals in the body and forming new connections in the brain.
In the workplace it means co-workers who interact face-to-face are not only better at collaboration, they’re also more creative.
In the meantime, I’m making up for my lack of physical presence by being a little more responsive on technology, whether that be emails, messaging apps or phone calls. At least I’m responding to new emails, not still trawling through everything sent to me over the past month.
Credit: Caitlin Fitzsimmons/Fairfax Syndication