The Right to Disconnect in a Connected World

Who would have thought that one day the government would see the need to intervene between companies and employees when it comes to texting and email practices? It happened in France. On January 1st, a new law went into effect that provides French workers with the “right to disconnect.” It requires companies with more than 50 workers to establish hours when staff are NOT supposed to be sending or checkign email, typically during the evenings and weekends.

As member of parliament Benoit Hamon told the BBC, “All the studies show there is far more work-related stress today than there used to be, and that the stress is constant. Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash — like a dog. The texts, the messages, the emails — they colonize the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down.”

Amen. Employers should understand that just because workers can be reached 24/7 via mobile devices, it doesn’t mean that they should be contacted around the clock, nor should they be expected to respond.

But the truth is that, whether we’re on the clock or off, most of us feel compelled to constantly check for messages from our clients, bosses, coworkers and teammates. Studies show that, not only are we spending more personal time checking email, the expectations for a quick response are increasing. A survey by Adobe of more than 1,000 white-collar workers in the U.S. and more than 3,000 white-collar workers in the U.K., France and Germany, reported that time spent checking email has increased 17% year over year. On the weekends, people send 19 work emails and read 29 emails on average. The majority of survey participants (79%), admit to checking work email on vacation, and nearly one-fourth said that they frequently or constantly check email while on vacation. Nearly 70% check email while watching TV, and 45% while in the bathroom.

The survey also found that, when at work, almost half of the participants expected a response to an email in less than an hour. Older millennials (25-34) have even higher expectations — over one-quarter expected email responses within a few minutes.

For remote workers, email can be a two-edged sword: It’s an effective way to stay visible to management or clients, as well as to document your progress and achievements (for those times when you need to create a “paper” trail). And yet it’s one of the biggest disrupters of your productivity. Dealing with email drains your mental energy, leaving you with less focus and motivation for more important tasks. It’s also an incredible time suck.

For the most part, our ability to control the content, volume and response-time expectations for email typically depends on three things: whether we’re employed or self-employed, the type of job we have, and how well we’re able to set expectations among clients, managers, colleagues and others. Unless your work requires you to be constantly connected to your inbox — for instance, customer service, account management or tech support — there are likely some adjustments you can make in your daily workflow to establish boundaries and more efficiently manage your email.

The following are a few practices that can help you to take back some control over your inbox and your time.

Set Expectations for Checking Email and Responding

Set (or reset) expectations for how quickly you respond to the people you correspond with regularly. In most cases, you can do this by simply adhering to consistent response-time practices (e.g., always replying to high-priority requests within 4-6 hours, and standard requests within 24-48 hours).

Unless your job requires it, try to avoid using email as a near real-time communication method. If you regularly reply to most email messages within the hour, others begin to expect that timeframe for a response when they reach out to you. Anything longer can be viewed as a performance problem.

That type of quick response can be difficult to maintain if you have other work that needs to be done. It also places a lot of stress and unrealistic demands on your time. Why? Other people end up setting their schedules and deadlines based on their confidence that you’ll respond to their requests quickly whenever they reach out. There is also the assumption that you’re generally available to set aside your schedule and to-do list to focus on their requests, their deadlines and their goals.

What can you do about it? Set a reasonable time buffer for responding to non-urgent messages — within 12, 24 or 48 hours, depending on the priority level of the message — and then schedule your reply messages to be sent within those timeframes. This allows you to batch your email tasks so that you can answer them in one sitting — and at the most appropriate time for you and your schedule. Your coworkers will receive responses within a reasonable timeframe, and you can preserve your high-energy hours for your most important tasks. Over time, others will stop expecting an immediate turnaround of their requests via email.

Tip: If you’re part of a remote team, it’s important to get group consensus on what types of messages are considered critical, the most appropriate medium (truly urgent messages might be better relayed via IM, text or a phone call), what type of response time is reasonable, and who needs to be included (not everyone needs to be copied on every message). Discuss with your teammates the 5Ws and How.

Schedule Email Time

Schedule specific time blocks for reading and responding to email. Don’t check it first thing in the morning when your energy and concentration is strong. Put it on your calendar or task list for mid-day or the second half of your work day. While it may be time-consuming, responding to email typically doesn’t require a lot of heavy thinking or high energy, so try to defer the activity until your complex tasks are done.

If your employer, client or team requires more frequent checkins, try to schedule those for specific times of day that don’t coincide with your most productive hours, such as noon, 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. (If you must check email in the a.m., consider rising an hour or two earlier to preserve your productive time.)

Tip: Disable work email on your personal devices during off-work hours. If possible, try to restrict your work email correspondence to one device. For instance, enable your work account only on your desktop or laptop, and not on your smartphone or tablet. Also, turn off alerts, notifications and badge counts. Seeing a high unread email count every time you look at your smartphone or tablet screen can cause work-related stress to seep into your personal time.

Focus on Efficient Workflow

Create a workflow system for sorting and responding to email that gets you through the activity as efficiently as possible. Prioritize and sort email messages based on the type of message (e.g., urgent, deadline-related, respond to in 24-48 hours, tasks and/or activities, status updates, informational, subscriptions, ignore, etc.), and by sender (e.g., clients, boss, teammate, coworkers, external inquiries, etc.). When pressed for time, you’ll be able to quickly identify which messages to focus your attention on.

Set up folders to store messages based on what type of action is required, such as reply-to, read, reference. If a message requires a response but is not urgent, send a reply to let the sender know that you received the message, and that you will respond in more detail within 24-48 hours (or whatever timeframe is applicable). Use a task management system or to-do application that can link to your email system so that you can quickly forward messages that require action or a response to your schedule or task list for followup.

Tip: Don’t rely on an unread email indicators as your reply-to list. It takes just one accidental click to mark an unread message as read — or worse, all messages — to create chaos in your day. Think of how much time you’ll have to spend going through ALL of your messages to identify the ones that need a response.

Create templates for information, responses and messages that you send frequently. You can store these in a note-saving app, like Evernote, SimpleNote or OneNote, which will allow you to categorize and/or tag responses so that you can quickly find them for copying and pasting. You can also use a typing shortcut tool to create and store snippets to use across your devices (e.g., TextExpander, TypeIt4me, QuickTextPaste).

Be Concise But Thorough

Email should be short and to the point, but make sure that your responses contain the appropriate amount of detail and information that the sender requested. Email messages often turn into lengthy back-and-forth conversations because one or both participants aren’t reading the full message and provide only partial answers. Try to preempt follow-up messages by considering what additional questions the sender may have, and providing those details or links to access additional information.

Tip: If you’re the one reaching out via email and need the receiver to answer several questions, use a bulleted list to outline the information that you need. There is less chance of the receiver overlooking a question if they are in list form.

While we can’t all be fortunate enough to work for employers that respect our time, we can adopt email practices to provide better balance between our work and personal lives. The urge to constantly check your email is a habit — and habits can be reformed with proper guidelines and consistent behavior.