Crippled by Email (#ITConsulting)

I may be considered an excessive user of email. My wife used to say that if they offered brain implants to receive e-mail without having to log to a computer I would be the first to volunteer. While I am not one of those people who keep 20,000 emails in their inbox or email messages with half a gig attachments I am a different type of excessive email user. I am the excessive email user who uses it for almost all of my communication, to track my work priorities, and even to keep draft versions of blog posts or articles which I’m working on. I use my inbox to prioritize my tasks for the day so that if the email is still in my inbox I know that work still needs to be done on it. My sales team picked up on this recently and actually re-emailed me about a request which I had not replied to quickly enough for them. I am not unique in how I use email and expect that many people reading this use it in the same way that I do.

It was a regular Tuesday at work. I walked in to my client site, sat down, started my laptop, and went to get a cup of coffee. When I got back to my cubical I logged in and immediately went to open email. The floor tilted, my vision narrowed, I felt as if cold water had been thrown in my face. E-mail was down. Houston (or in our case Austin where my email server is), can you help? As of that minute I could no longer prioritize my work day, receive updates on my tasks or even communicate effectively. I had no idea what had occurred since I had left work the day before. I had no idea what was occurring on any Statements of Work we were developing. Had my meetings for the day been cancelled, or rescheduled? And I realized that my colleagues and clients would quickly come to the conclusion that I was ignoring their requests because I worked to be consistent in responding to any email requests I was sent. I had put way too many eggs into the same basket and the basket had just hit the floor.

How had I gotten to the point where I was this reliant on my email? I was among the first generation of kids raised with computers. Before I was ten years old I was playing computer games and writing my own programs. While now-a-days that is considered to be normal, in the 1970’s that was extremely rare. During my childhood if we wanted to communicate with someone we had phones with cords that had to stay in the house – sometimes attached to the wall. Mail, actual letters written by hand because not everyone had a typewriter, and sent by the post-office was a slower option. Otherwise we had to physically visit the person. Let’s face it, we didn’t always want to actually see the person!

Bulletin boards (BBS systems) were the first to provide a level of digital communication; this was replaced by the Internet decades later. It wasn’t until near the end of the century that we started adding cell phones into the mainstream. My first cell phone was a big box-like-thing, similar to a small car battery with a 9 key pad on it. Poor reception and the fact that they were heavy enough to cause severe back strain made them more of a novelty, only CEO’s and other important people carried these around so I still have no idea why I had one. Email started creeping into our daily work life and evolved from a communication mechanism that was used only while you were at work into a method to communicate both at home and at work. Texting followed on the heels on the cell phone revolution. Remember the pager? Before the 20th century ended we had clothed ourselves in our gadgets: cell phones, pagers, PDA’s. And many of the geeks in the crew were really impressed by the “bat-belt” they had assembled.

This century has seen the beginning of blogging. Blogging can provide a method to share technical information and our lives with everyone who might be remotely interested. Social media sites such as Facebook started becoming mainstream and Twitter has introduced micro-blogging into the communication sphere. The direction of all of these has been the same – we are adding new communication methods and evolving existing communication methods regularly and integrating them more into our daily lives. Cell phones can now do the job of the old pagers and PDA’s in one instrument.

The expectation that we will be available 24×7 to answer these communication methods has also increased. Everyone in the work force is expected to have email and a cell phone – at a minimum. What happens when your cell phone rings? Do you run to where it is in the house to pick it up before it goes to voicemail? What about when your wife or kids ask for you for something? Do you run to them when they call or do you finish what you are doing and then go see them? When did our society change to the point where the people who matter most to us are a lesser priority than the person who decided to dial 10 digits on their phone?

When did email change to the point where it is expected to be a real-time by-directional communication mechanism?

This Tuesday morning technical glitch caused me to learn a couple of solid life lessons. The first lesson is that becoming too dependent upon one technology provides a risk which may compromise our ability to function. In my case, it took a simple client email outage for me to realize that I needed to change my habits and diversify what technologies I use. I have come to embrace more Instant Messaging (IM). Instant Messaging provides a quick method of communication, and in the case of an inability to communicate via e-mail it is easy to notify co-workers that you are unable to communicate via email. OneNote has been extremely helpful, both to keep track of priorities and to keep draft versions of blog post ideas and articles. Through adding more mechanisms for communication, and thus splitting my eggs among multiple different technical baskets I’m decreasing the risk of putting myself into a situation where I’m crippled by my email again. Keeping solid backups of files also goes a long way to eliminating risks. Scheduling a weekly or daily backup minimizes the risk that a corrupted hard drive will result in the kind of micro-catastrophe I experienced.

The second lesson learned from this is bigger than the first. It raises the cultural question: “Is it really a good thing to be available 24×7 via multiple communication methods?” A while back I made a decision to block text messaging on my phone. I will admit at first I did it because I was too cheap to pay for a text plan. Over time however, I have come to the decision that for my family I do not see enough benefit to having text messaging in place to offset the risks and costs associated with it. I have heard of kids spending their entire waking day on their cell phone sending text messages and staying up all night with their friends’ texting. I watch kids everywhere texting; at movies, in church, even while they are sitting on the porch next to each other! The only benefit I see to texting is that someone can interrupt me while I am already on the phone with someone else; in all seriousness that doesn’t seem like much of a benefit. So for me, I have decided intentionally to draw a line and to block text messaging within my household.

Different people use different ways to draw lines to separate work and home from each other. I work with people who do not answer email or phone calls during the hours after they get home until just before they go to bed. This lets them focus on their family and draws a respectful line for the employer. Others take one day a week as a day of rest and do not work or respond to work related communication during that period of time. Is it really worth it to have a cell phone that you feel you need to check for email every few minutes? I decided to dumping the data plan, and to drop the habit of reading email as it arrives as long as I was conscious. My wife appreciates our nights out more when she’s not competing with my email. The key here is that each person’s lines are their own but they should be established to provide a line between where work ends and personal/family life begins. Employers should have the ability to communicate with employees, but employees also need time away to relax and to recharge. Employees who don’t get the chance to break away from work eventually burn out, their work suffers and so does their employer.

Are you crippled by email or another technology? Are you currently connected to your employer 24×7 by multiple communication methods? If so, we challenge you to think about how you can diversify the technologies which you use and to draw respectful lines between your work and personal life.

Cameron and Beth Fuller 09/07/2010

A preview of concepts from the upcoming book “IT Consulting: By Example”

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