I had an interesting conversation with another academic over the weekend about the challenges of being available all the time for our students/administrators/fellow faculty while trying to not let it take over our lives. Although I often think about work-life technology balance, I do not think I have attained the right balance. A few years ago, at a Labor Day picnic, I checked my email on my phone and then spent the rest of the party obsessed about my overdue assessment reports.
Later, I realized that that was a tipping point: why was I checking my email during a picnic, on a national holiday no less? I had to admit that the reason was not because I was afraid of being unavailable (no one would expect me to answer questions at this time) but because I was afraid of missing something. Email had become my addiction.
Jennifer Senior’s book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood explores the addictive nature of email and other social media and how it negatively influences our ability to live the moment when it comes to parenting. That very day I removed the email app from my phone, and I survived. Though I do not remember any negative fall-out from that period, one day, at an out-of-town conference, I put the email back on the phone, and my addiction had started right up again.
My friend and I talked about email boundaries. She pointed out that some of her colleagues do not like when others send emails on the weekend because they think it implies that they should reply to those emails over the weekend. And what about texting? Another colleague said that texting someone about work related issues, unless something urgent has come up that needs an immediate answer, is simply rude. I admit that I am guilty of sending weekend emails, though I try to keep texting colleagues at all to a minimum.
Students are another concern. As a policy, I tell those I hire that they should simply indicate to students their availability during the first days of the semester. If they do not check email on evenings and weekends, then they should just give students a heads-up. The challenge is that my students keep very different hours from me. They tend to start working just as I’m heading to bed, and they always consider themselves in urgent need of a response. They sometimes even check off those red “urgent” flags, which I always find funny because I never prioritize flagged messages. In fact, those little red flags annoy me so much that, if I read your red-flagged message and I didn’t think it was an actual emergency, I might passive aggressively punish you by putting you in the bottom of my email priority. Of course, with my present constantly checking email addiction, that only delays my response by about 15 minutes.
However, pulling the plug on my email addiction scares me. What are the consequences of losing my “always available” status? I like those student evaluation responses that say, “She was always available for me.” I enjoy knowing that I can be counted on for a quick response as an administrator. In fact, I think that’s an expectation for a department chairperson. Yet, there must be a happy medium, no? What limitations do you put on your availability?