Dear self, (and anyone else who needs it)
Here it is. You were waiting for it (or at least, I was, for a long time), so please feel free to print out as many copies as you need:
This certificate hereby entitles the bearer,
to delay responding to non-urgent emails, social media, texts, and voicemails until a time that is convenient for them. “Urgency” is decided solely at the discretion of the bearer.
I need this because unanswered emails sit on the back of my brain. They itch like a cheap tag on the neck of my shirt.
I feel bad when there is a message in my inbox that I could respond to right away but choose not to for any number of good reasons like:
- I don’t feel up to it right now
- I am doing some other, more complicated thing
- I am doing something higher on my list of priorities
- I need some down time
I feel especially bad when this message comes from somebody I care about and like — I sure do want to answer them back! I don’t want them to be unhappy, and I worry that if I don’t answer this message right the heck away, they might interpret my hesitation as dislike or disinterest, even though of course I wouldn’t think the same of them if they took a little while to respond to me.
Digital messages come with a lot of worry, actually. There’s the type where you can tell if the other person has read what you’ve sent — OMG, do I have to come up with a response right away? There’s the type where you can tell if the other person has started typing a response — do I have to compose my entire message all at once?
And there’s just the plain fact that they can arrive at any ding-dong time of day or night, no matter where I happen to be (work, home, vacation), on a device that I use for a lot of important things (writing, research, reading articles, watching movies and TV, listening to podcasts or music). And they interrupt whatever I’m doing — a notification pops up telling me I have a new message, and I just gotta check it out. More information is better than less, right? Besides, it could always be something actually important that really should interrupt my day — a response to an urgent question, news about my career or loved ones or events scheduled that same day.
During the teaching term, I get emails from students at all hours, and I remember sending worried 3am emails myself, scared of what the answer from my profs might be. I want to answer them all right away, even if they interrupt other work I’m doing or the time I finally get to relax or a visit with out-of-town family.
Outside the teaching term, there’s always something from work or events I’m helping to organize or social stuff from friends and family. And part of the reason I feel so compelled to answer them right away is because I like those people! I like reading what they’ve written to me and writing back!
But if I keep letting every new message interrupt what I’m doing, I’m never going to be able to focus on long, complex projects. And the longest, most complex project that I work on is my writing, which makes concentrating even more difficult: I can always do it some other time, no one but me will notice if I don’t finish it in within the time frame I’ve set myself, and I’m not making money from it (yet). It’s the most important job I have, but it isn’t the most urgent. If I prioritize on the basis of the latter only, I’ll never get around to it.
I know it’s not possible to ignore email or online messages all the time — heck, I teach professional communication. We talk about being timely and time-sensitive, making sure to send responses within the appropriate deadline and share information effectively so the recipient has time to use it.
But that doesn’t always mean responding as fast as possible. I’m glad I’m usually able to reply to students’ emails relatively quickly after they send them, but I also accept that I have to set boundaries to avoid burn-out and allow me to complete my other work responsibilities. Another thing we talk about in my communication courses is being proactive, but that doesn’t mean taking all the emotional labour of communication on myself: it means taking responsibility for my communication situations so communication can happen effectively.
In this case, it means setting clear expectations in situations where that’s appropriate. For example, something that annoys the heck out of me with wedding vendors is not getting a response to a business email and its polite follow-up for over two weeks, and then getting an apology email saying my correspondent was out of office. Being out of office is more than fine — it’s important! — but it’s also important to set up an auto-responder/website message/voicemail message/whatever it is that works for you telling people you won’t be around for that time.
So, I always tell my students at the start of term that I will respond to emails within three business days. Usually, I’m much faster than that, but sometimes I need time to focus on other priorities like marking or avoiding burn-out. Keeping weekends and holidays as no-work-zones is an important part of the latter for me. (Believe me, my burned-out answer to an email is not going to help the sender in the long run.) And if I anticipate something drastic (illness, emergency) keeping me from meeting that standard, I post a course-wide message to that effect.
Doing so has made me a healthier person (and more helpful correspondent) than the days when I felt obligated to answer every email as soon as I saw it. And I still feel guilty about my turnaround time — there are a handful of professors on the teaching listserv who report answering emails within the hour, day or night. I don’t know how they do it, but I’ve accepted that their practice is not compatible with my life.
Likewise, my friends’ emails and messages will still be there after I’ve spent the morning writing. Fiancé doesn’t expect me to message back immediately (and vice versa), even though we both work at our computers.
There is, obviously, a difference between delaying responses and putting off responses indefinitely. For me, it helps to know when I plan to answer my emails — for instance, “OK, on Monday, I’ll respond to those three messages and schedule that appointment with X, but for now, I’ll enjoy the weekend.” Sometimes, it helps to write it down on my to-do list so I don’t worry about forgetting.
All these strategies allow me to stake out my own time and address my priorities in the way I need to. And for that, I trust myself to answer emails and messages later — to value my own convenience at least as much as I value that of my correspondents’.