MENTAL SPACE

The greatest luxury for the modern worker is ignoring other people’s messages

Obsession
Life as Laboratory
Obsession
Life as Laboratory

The modern worker faces a daily blitz of texts, emails, tweets, Slack messages, LinkedIn requests, phone calls and news alerts. The cycles of social messaging eats up a third of work days, according to a McKinsey study and can leave us feeling weary even before our real work begins.

Even though the theories behind detaching from devices are well-known, practicing it is much harder. Ignoring direct messages still makes most feel guilty or inept—the ticker of unread, unanswered or missed messages is the modern marker of shame. Being constantly hyper-connected has even surfaced new kinds of neurosis, such as nomophobia, or the fear of being without a mobile phone.

“These days, it really takes courage to put your boss on hold or turn away from your kids for 30 minutes, or not to answer messages when we know they’re piling up,” says British-born essayist Pico Iyer. “But it takes courage to do anything important.”

“Human beings were never designed to live at a pace determined by machines,” argued the author of The Art of Stillness during an April 27 workshop called “Stillness for Beginners,” at the TED conference. Instead, clearing our minds should be as routine and valued as other healthy habits like brushing our teeth, getting exercise or eating well, he explains.

Here’s how to do that, crowdsourced from the TED workshop participants:

Attack of emails

Of the many attention-grabbing apps, workshop participants agreed that email was the greatest oppressor of all. “I feel the firehouse of my email communications, I feel defeated,” expressed one participant. “I just can’t cope with the in-flow.”

Another participant recommends using the browser extension Inbox When Ready, that blocks the avalanche of emails until you call it up. It also discourages mindless email-checking at all times of the day.

A tech entrepreneur said that he keeps his iPhone on airplane mode when he’s with his family, and treats it like a camera instead of a messaging device. He also deletes all emails every first of the year, figuring that if he wasn’t able to respond or unsettle business the previous year, it must have not have been so important. “It’s totally liberating.”

A man holds his laptop computer as he sits on a bench in a park in Cologne, western Germany, Monday, Oct. 1, 2007. (AP Photo/Roberto Pfeil)
(AP/Roberto Pfeil)

Setting boundaries

The most insidious of all emails are those sent while we’re not in the office. German companies Volkswagen and Daimler AG have taken proactive measures to help employees safeguard their time off. Volkswagen’s Blackberry servers stops delivering messages after an employee’s shift and Daimler has a voluntary “Mail on Holiday” program that automatically deletes incoming messages when employees are on vacation. “As employees come back from holidays, they start with a clean desk,” explains a Daimler human resource representative to Quartz.

 “I say if you need to contact me, here’s my wife’s email address.” A manager who works in an Australia start-up says he turns his mobile phone off during the month he goes on annual leave. For bosses and clients who insist on keeping contact, he gives his out-of-office email as his out-of-office contact. “I say if you need to contact me, here’s my wife’s email address.” It’s an offer no one has ever taken, he reports. “It can be done—disappearing for weeks at a time.”

Similarly, another participant creates a separate holiday email address (like johnisonholiday@company.com), warning colleagues that it will be the only account he’ll be checking while on holiday. Creating a holiday email address also discourages senders from mindlessly copying him on non-priority emails. He says the five years of abstaining from emails while on holiday has help him put work in perspective. “We all believe that work stops when we stop working, but the world doesn’t stop,” he reflects.

Iyer, who lives in Japan three months out of the year, says he’s doesn’t carry a mobile phone and leaves his landline for his clients when he’s abroad.

Attitude change

Amid a hyper-connected environment, ignoring messages feels like an indulgence. It’s not. It’s a necessity for mental well-being. But for these sanity-saving tactics above to stick, we need to change the way we think about workplace communication. This deeper culture shift requires personal discipline and company-wide support.

The tactics in Iyer’s workshop sound radical because white-collar professionals are still largely judged by their responsiveness. A 2013 study by GFI still describes the prevailing norm: 80% check email on weekends, one-third of shoot off a response within 15 minutes and a quarter reply within 30 minutes. Workers who reply with speed and frequency are considered dependable, high performers. Those who take time responding or don’t reply are considered lax or rude. Perhaps they should be considered healthy and disciplined, instead.

Senders could also learn to better write messages for various channels. Casual courtesies like “thanks” or “you’re welcome,” make sense on instant messaging—but they don’t always deserve their own email. Every message counts and every missive, though well-meaning, is a task that adds to someone’s inbox.

A workshop participant who confessed to having 320,000 unread emails on her phone put it best “Email is not a binding contract. You have to get out of the hamster wheel.”

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