Thoughts on “The Pleasures of Uninterrupted Communication” (and managing expectations)

Boing Boing’s Cory Doctorow, wrote a great article for Internet Evolution recently – The Pleasures of Uninterrupted Communication – detailing his strategy for dealing with interruptions and not having to deal with the mountain of e-mail one encounters after having returned from and extended break or vacation – “email apnea” as it has been coined.

So I eliminate the mountain: when I go away for an email fast (usually coinciding with a holiday), I set up an auto-responder advising correspondents that I’m away and that I “won’t be reading their email” when I get back, asking that they re-send anything urgent after my return (I make sure a few key people, like my business-partners, parents, and agent know how to reach me by phone). When I sit down at my desk again after the break, I download all my mail while I have a little walk or tidy up my desk. Once it’s all downloaded, I select every last message and delete them. No email apnea.

Cory does not delete the e-mails because he does not care about the people who sent them, he does so because he cares too much to not be able to respond due to the sheer volume.

You see, I love communicating too much to be interrupted. Whether I’m writing an essay or a novel, composing an email, or chattering with someone by voice, the last thing I want is to be given a jolt of useless adrenaline every time something new lands in my queue. Indeed, the oppressive weight of the knowledge that the queue is lengthening is enough to stress me out — any time I go away for a day or a week, all I can think of is that mountain of mail accumulating on my server.

One of the many things I love about this is that it is yet another wonderful example of managing others expectations, through simple and compassionate communication, in order to achieve your own freedom. Compassionate? Well, you see, if you let people know what to expect from you – that you only check your e-mail twice a day and at particular times, for instance – then they will not be disappointed that you did not respond to their e-mail as soon as they sent it.

For those of us old enough to remember, there was once a time when this kind of access and availability did not exist. Leaving a phone message is a good example. Once upon a time if you called someone, and they were either not home or on the phone, your only option was to call them back later. The responsibility was placed upon you to remember to take action at a later time, not upon the person you were trying to reach.

Now, all of this has changed around. Now, because there are so many ways for people to place the responsibility of follow-up upon us, even while we are “not available”, it adds up to increased workload and stress placed upon us. I think one of the many dangers of our growing “always connected” society is the idea that license is given to others to always have a way to interrupt others at anytime. The expectation has already been set by the sheer existence of tools that provide ever increasing ways to get our attention. People naturally assume that everyone treats these tools as they do. If they prefer (or are conditioned to) jumping on their email, mobile phone, “crackberry” every time it buzzes or blinks, then they, somewhat naturally, assume the same of you. The onus is therefore upon each us to manage those expectations to fit our needs.

Here is an idea, how about sending an e-mail to your coworkers that goes something like this?

Dear Comrades,

Because I value my communication with you and would like to make sure that I respond to your needs with the appropriate level of action, I have set up some basic criteria for handling my e-mail and mobile phone.

I check and respond to e-mail twice a day. Once in the morning at 9am and again in the afternoon at 4pm. I do this in order to give my responses complete attention at those times. Because of this, I would prefer all non-urgent communication to be e-mailed to me and it will be acted upon at those times.

If there is something that requires my immediate attention, please call me on my mobile phone at 555.555.5555. I assume that anything coming to me via phone is urgent and requires my immediate attention. Therefore, as a courtesy to those that truly require urgency, please do not call my mobile for non-urgent items.

To recap:

Urgent = Phone

Non-Urgent = E-mail

Thank you for your cooperation in helping me provide you with the service you desire.

Sincerely,

Patrick

As I have said before, Be Pavlov, not the dog…

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