My recent post “Zen and the Art of E-mail Maintenance” created a little flurry of interest on the Twittersphere (thanks I think to a friend and colleague – thanks Catherine). It also attracted a couple of comments (I am never really sure what to do in relation to comments, revealing an certain ambiguity on my part about the ‘public’ aspect of my blogging).
One comment made reference to my use of a Calmbox signature on my emails:
This is a Calm Inbox: email is checked once in the AM and once in the PM. Learn why at http://www.calmbox.me
I have used this for a few years now and apply it to my work and personal email boxes. Why?
Before I answer that question I want to briefly reflect upon how people have responded. While there has been some jokey and not so jokey dismissals of it, or scepticism about whether I actually practice what the signature apparently preaches, there has been an overwhelming positive response from folks. This has not led to an increase in observable use of the Calmbox signature but perhaps it has encouraged some thoughtful reflection on how we relate to email (particularly work email), the boundaries between work and home life, and our capacity to do our work in effective ways.
But my use of the signature is primarily personal. It is a daily reminder to be mindful about how I relate to email, and more broadly to the quality of my professional practice.
I came across Calmbox while searching for ideas and resources that would encourage a more mindful and contemplative engagement with computing. This was partly driven by an experience of a problematic use of email in a professional context.
This happened a while back in a previous employment. Like many academics I was not very good at maintaining good boundaries between work and home life. I sold myself the story that this was a necessary consequence of the relative autonomy that can be enjoyed by academics (though certainly not all). If I wanted some flexibility in how I did my job outside of those periods that required direct contact with colleagues and students, then I had to accept that the ‘job’ would bleed into my weekends, evening, etc. And, to be honest, this is not such a bad deal. Being an academic is a pretty good thing. Of course, this blurring of professional and private life can also be a result of the passion that we can often have for our subjects and our teaching. In a very real sense the boundary between professional requirement and personal interest can be very obscure. And, if one is in any kind of management role you very quickly learn that the day job can’t be done without also working evening shifts and weekends.
This has always been the case. One question to ask, though, is whether the ubiquitous presence of ‘instant’ communication whereby we can receive our work emails on our smartphone means that the blurring of boundaries can become intensified and possibly toxic.
The incident I referred above went something like this:
I was checking my work emails one Sunday evening. I came across a discussion thread that related to an issue raised at the departmental Teaching and Learning Committee the previous week. Were this simply a continuation of discussion or reflection amongst a number of colleagues I would not have felt so concerned. However, this exchange between senior members of faculty was of a qualitatively different kind. While cc-ing all members of the T&L Committee (good?) the discussion was mostly confined to about three people and they were actually trying to make decisions. They were in effect holding the T&L Committee meeting on a Sunday evening when most members of that committee were not visibly joining the discussion, and were not actually invited. The ethics of this immediately flared up in front of me. I felt compelled to intervene in this discussion and point out the ethical problems it raised. There was nothing urgent about the decisions that were being sought. So why the compulsion? In the following week a number of colleagues agreed with me about the ethical problems of that misuse of email. While the central players in this issue did not really see what the problem was there certainly a diminution of such types of email exchange at weekends. My argument to one colleague was that while I might ‘choose’ to ‘work’ at a weekend, it should not be presumed that I would. Any email exchange, any writing activity, any planning or communication with students at the weekend should be viewed as ‘voluntary’.
I felt though that what I had just witnessed was emblematic of a wider malaise in academia. The instantaneous nature of communication, the technological capacity to access emails from anywhere at anytime can work to diminish our individual agency and entice us into a world where we feel compelled to be accessible or gain access at all times.
Where is the boundary between an individual voluntarily choosing to access their email at 2 am on a Sunday morning and a working assumption that colleagues will access their emails at the weekend?
When does voluntary action become compulsion become requirement?
To me this is not the flexibility to do my ‘thinking’ when most effective.
To me this is not the flexibility to write when it is most conducive to do so.
Does this constant chatter, this constant noise of email communication make us more effective at what we do? I think not.
I could criticise others for their use or misuse of email, and the wider uses of computing technology. But what about me? What was I doing? How could I change my relationship with this culture of continuous and instantaneous communication?
The Calmbox signature is a means by which I discipline myself. It means, for me, that I give a definite period of time to managing the flow of communication that comes through my email. There is a degree of necessary flexibility in that when saying I check my email once in the morning this could last for a few hours. But what is most important is that it introduces a pause into the process of communication. I sort the emails rather than just respond immediately (as many people do) and deliberately pause, asking myself how I should respond, whether some need more thought before I reply. I like to think that my responses tend to be more considered. There is a small, subtle resistance to the demand for instant responses, believing that considered ones are preferable.
Does this mean that my emails back up? No. If anything I think I am much more efficient than I used to be when my email was constantly on.
Importantly I do not have my work emails going to my phone. This is for two reasons. Firstly, I think it is immoral for organisations to assume that we are ‘on call’ constantly (there is more that could be said about that). Secondly, I think there is something wrong in me subsidising the organisation by utilising my personal phone for work communication.
Most importantly though this more disciplined approach to engaging with email communication means that I can give attention to many of my core tasks. I give myself a ‘digital sabbath‘ as it were. I can be more attentive to planning activities, to responding to students’ work, to writing letters, to reading, to academic writing. It gives me time to meet with colleagues. Its not radical. Its not intrusive. But it does help cultivate attention. It helps me work in a mindful way, being attentive to the task in front of me rather than distracted and scattered in my approach. I am less stressed. My response to things are more measured.
For some interesting thoughts on this topic check out Megan Miller’s discussion on “Mindful Media: A New Culture of Immersiveness” @BuddhistGeeks: