When we got word that we weren’t going back to school, I made a pot of coffee. I went to the basement with my laptop and notebook, and I jumped on the first of many Zoom calls with my instructional coaches and curriculum director.
It was early evening. On a weekend. We were just starting to get the idea that things weren’t going to be normal for a while. We were a little apprehensive, but mostly, I think we were excited. This is a challenge that we could meet. This is an opportunity to put creativity and critical thinking and collaboration to work to solve a real world problem. And there was no risk of failure. It was already a hopeless situation. Anything we did would be better than not doing anything.
So we got to work. We spent a few hours putting plans together, and several more hours the next day. We prioritized tech needs and pedagogical needs and human needs. We curated resources and scheduled on-the-fly professional development opportunities. We took care of our people, and we asked them to take care of each other.
In those first few weeks, life and work became completely intertwined. Everyone was home all the time. We worked when we needed to. We took breaks in the middle of the day for things like showering and exercise. We celebrated “wine with DeWine” until the reality of constant access to the kitchen necessitated a change to “bike with Mike.” For the first time in my career, it wasn’t unusual for me to take an hour off for lunch with my wife. And it wasn’t unusual that I would be working at 7pm or 9pm or whenever I needed to get things done. In those first few weeks, everything moved very quickly. We were trying to be agile and responsive. And that meant working when there was work to be done. And there was always work to be done. People were counting on us. Plus, there really wasn’t much else to do.
Eventually, we went back to work. Schools reopened. Life became life again. But I’m not sure that we separated “work” and “not work.” We got used to the idea that everyone is always available.
It’s time to stop that.
Here’s the reality: the work we do doesn’t really matter that much. Sure. We’re changing lives and inspiring learners to be exceptional and molding the minds of the next generation and all that. I get it. But if I don’t return that phone call until Monday, or I don’t answer that email for a day or two, the world isn’t going to end. I’m more effective at my work when I take some time away from it. And you are too.
Last week, a colleague told me that she turned notifications off for work email on her phone. “I cannot decide if it’s good or bad, but I’m sticking with it to see if I can break the anxiety of checking email.” I was horrified. In the last year, this person has received 31,837 emails. That’s 87 notifications on her phone every day. That kind of always-on approach is not sustainable.
I don’t check my work email when I’m not at work. It’s a practice I started several years ago, when I realized I was closing my email at my desk, driving home, and immediately checking email. Even if I didn’t take action on anything, I was thinking about work all the time. I was composing responses, or making plans, or trying to brainstorm solutions to problems. It wasn’t fair to my family, and it wasn’t fair to me.
Sure, emergencies come up. Once in a while, something really significant happens that requires my immediate attention. In those cases, I get a call or a text. And I take care of it if I need to. But if that happens a couple times a week, we have a problem.
In the interest of balance and civility, let’s try to do these things:
Don’t check email outside of work. Email is asynchronous. There’s nothing there that requires an immediate response. If you’re SENDING an email, and want an answer right away, you shouldn’t be using email to reach out. Just relax. We’ll get to it.
Because not everyone follows these rules, I use “scheduled send” a lot. Maybe I’m awake at 3:00 in the morning and I’m answering email. Maybe I decided to put an hour in on Saturday night. But that doesn’t mean I’m available to work on your thing, and I don’t expect you to be available to respond to me. Schedule those email responses to go out at 7AM on Monday and it’ll keep everyone from working all weekend.
If you need to talk about something important, text first. “Do you have a couple minutes?” That lets the person know that this is kind of important, but it’s not necessarily more important than anything else you could possibly be doing. I hate to bother you, but I really need your help, and it can’t wait until tomorrow.
If it’s an emergency, call. If a coworker calls my phone out of the blue, I answer it if I possibly can. Because that IS a situation where it’s more important than anything else I might be doing. I don’t know what’s wrong, but whatever it is, it needs my immediate attention. So I’m going to answer the phone.
Once in a while, someone abuses that. Everyone has that one coworker who calls constantly. Over the years, I’ve had colleagues treat me like their own personal 24/7 tech support. Those people go to voicemail. Every time. They’ve lost the right to “urgent” in my world, because they abuse my time.
We work hard. We get paid well. We’re dedicated professionals. We try to make a difference. But we need to balance our personal and professional lives, so we’re better at both of them.