Taming My Inbox or Taming Myself – a follow-up to Zen and the Art of E-mail Maintenance

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.

sabbath-manifesto

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:

 

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grade point averages and the love letters sent by the wind and rain, the snow and moon

marking

i picked up a tweet earlier today from @mike_rat concerning the possible/probable introduction of GPA (Grade Point Average) scores.  this emanates from the UK’s Higher Education Academy facilitating a discussion on the introduction of GPA in the UK.

alongside this a number of UK universities are considering introducing GPA unilaterally (i think).

i am not sure why this particular item caught my attention, and why it ‘troubled’ me.  i paused, and tried to locate where the feeling for this piece of news resided.  i felt my heart pounding – like a flight/fight response.  for a moment i wondered whether this was just an effect of the viral flu i have been suffering and/or the tinnitus.

for reasons i am still unsure of (and mike was very accommodating to my strange intervention) i tweeted these lines from the Tao Te Ching:

“Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt.” Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

what on earth did i mean?  more properly, what on earth did these words mean to me and how did i think they related to the introduction of GPA?

the tweet appeared just after i had sent a student a very strongly worded email detailing how their draft dissertation would not pass the grade.  all the way through reading and commenting on their work i struggled with what we ‘scientifically’ call formative and summative evaluation.  how NEUTRAL these words appear. 

i wanted to ENCOURAGE the student’s efforts, enthusiasm for the topic, commitment to social justice.  i wanted to coach her in skills and tricks of the trade that could enable her to communicate her meaning more clearly.  i still hold to what i said, to those nurturing comments in bold.  as i wrote those comments, thought those thoughts, offered my own experience, i thought of what this degree might mean for her.  i thought about the personal-emotional-financial investment, how this could be more than a private act as much as a family and communal act.  i thought about my responsibility in enabling her to SUCCEED. 

and then i thought about the network of texts into which she was now inserted – application forms, grade sheets, dissertation cover sheets, applications for extension, student progress reports, etc.  i felt the weight of this.  i knew she would be judged harshly and that i had better get in first so that she had some chance to get through with something that would affirm her.

so, she was attempting to pour nourishment into her bowl.

i contemplated grading her according to our 100 point scale, index her successes and failures according to percentage points against each descriptor.  

i contemplated, in other words, to dehumanise what was an absolutely human endeavour.  

i contemplated reducing her fears and hopes, anxieties and dreams to mere numbers.  

i contemplated asking her to fill her bowl to the brim rather than choose carefully the food that nourishes, because filling to overflow appears more valued than the wisdom that might arise from her educational engagement.  

and the knife that is blunted?  the GAP perhaps; every technology of division and discrimination.

i know how students (i am one now myself) may welcome the detailed gradation offered by GPA systems.  i know for myself how attracted i am to the descriptors and 100 point scale offered by our masters courses compared to the pass/fail on our professional doctorates.  i know how as a teacher they help me direct attention to specific areas for development and to make my job of commenting easier when i am tired and find ‘creating’ hard.  but surely these things come AFTER.

they come AFTER the relationship that is at the core of learning (relationship between teacher and student, between student and knowledge collectively produced over millennia).

they come AFTER the creation of knowledge that is the product of the uncertainty inherent in those relationships, the fact that we come to KNOW because we realise we don’t know, or see things as new, or come to KNOW what was formerly FELT.

they come AFTER we contemplate the WHY.  why is this (degree, topic, writing, etc.) of value to THIS PERSON in the fulness of their living.  all else is simply the games we play or are inclined to play in the context of ‘globalisation of higher education’.  we know that the GPA will not change the basic discriminatory structure of global higher education.

“Every day, priests minutely examine the Law

And endlessly chant complicated sutras.

Before doing that, though, they should learn

How to read the love letters sent by the wind and rain,

    the snow and moon. 

Ikkyu, “Rain, the Snow, and Moon

before we get caught up in how best to grade we should consider how we read the love letters!

book shelves and emotional de-cluttering

Image

recently i was sat in my home study.  i was worrying (what a surprise) about my preparations for a job interview and presentation.  in fact, it is more honest to say that i was worrying less about the event than whether i would go for the interview at all.  i had been contemplating the matter of academic authenticity.  how would i present myself (my ‘self’) to the interview panel; what story about ‘me’ did i want to relate; was i really up to it anyhow? these are not just doubts about performance but go right to the existential problem of authentic living.  i wondered whether i should re-read some kirkegard, i was sure he could tell me something about authenticity, after all he chose not to marry in order to live a particular kind of authentic life.  choices.  not supermarket choices, but real, substantive, existential choices.  it was while reflecting on this question (no, worrying is much better a word here – i was WORRYING) that my eyes browsed my book shelves.  for an academic book shelves say a lot about who you think you are.  they are a semi-public display of your external identity, your intellectual and professional persona.  obviously this is more true in the context of the institutional office, but the home office is a reflection back on yourself of who you are trying to BE publicly, a particular kind of ‘being in the world’.  

i started to note one book after another that had remained unread, indeed unopened, for over a year.  

why were they there?  

i had bought them during my ‘year of a recovering academic’ (more on that when i am ready to share that particular story).  they had been bought as an attempt to carve out a distinctive and authentic me, me as academic.  the books were bought to bolster, to provide an epistemic bedrock for, a me i thought i wanted to be and who had been resisted by institutional requirements.

all very interesting books.  

all books i KNEW i wanted, NEEDED, at the time.

but they lay there untouched, not utilised in any academic endeavour.  money that could and perhaps should have been spent on other more useful items.  it was. after all an expensive year. recovery is expensive.

they were bought alongside setting up a website and a blog.  all of these would make quite clear who I was – wouldn’t they?

no.

but i worried that the job i had applied for, was now preparing to be interviewed for, would take me further away from this authentic me. however, it became quite clear that the me i had so diligently sought to construct, had put ‘effort’ into making, had invested ego into – was not really there.  what was it that i spent my time reading?  what really animated me as a person, as an academic, as a teacher scholar? 

the books, blogs, websites, magazines were telling me, but i wasn’t really listening. they were telling me that what took my attention on a daily basis concerned matters of spiritual contemplation, the phenomenological experience of ‘being’ an academic, the nature of learning and knowledge, of Buddhist philosophy and psychology.  how many retreats had i been on?  how many times had i sat? how much mindful attention had i cultivated? this mount fuji of experience was transparent to me as i ‘worked’, ‘struggled’, put ‘effort’ into constructing a credible, authentic academic me. 

it is not that issues of migration are not of importance.  these remain heartfelt issues for me.  but i was called to attend to other things.

all of a sudden my worrying stopped.  i had mentally emptied the shelves of this excess matter; put them in boxes labeled “if not opened in a year share with others”.  

as i had hoarded these books so i had hoarded discontent.  as long as those books remained on my emotional bookshelves they would shout insults at me, telling me what a failure i was, that i hadn’t written that article, hadn’t sought funding for that research project.  if i allowed, and it is allowed because i can choose otherwise, to be deaf to what my heart was telling me then authenticity would forever be unattainable.  so i had to un-clutter my academic mind and heart, allow myself the treasure of pursuing what i felt called to do.

the books are still on the shelves. i might get round to boxing them up.  if i don’t it will be less a worrying doubt in my mind as laziness.