Do you manage technology, or does it manage you?
Emails, mobile messages and calls, social-media updates — all our new communication tools — have been a boon to business by enhancing workplace productivity and easing customer interaction. But they can become a curse when allowed to run too free. The constant pings and rings of modern life too easily steal attention away from what really matters, undermining your business and upsetting your personal balance.
To help you get and stay in control, we asked our summer panel of entrepreneurs and experts to answer this question, the fifth in our “Get a Life” series:
What are your top tips for coping with the 24/7 pull of emails, text messages, social media updates and phone calls? How do you ensure that technology aids work-life fit, rather than destroys it?
Many of us feel trapped in an endless cycle of responsiveness that leaves us starved for time. The stress from this time famine is negatively impacting our health and ultimately our performance, according to our research. Here are three tips for disrupting this vicious cycle:
1) Don’t multi-task when you need to focus. While we all think we are doing two things at once, research shows that we are really just switching constantly between one task and the other, doing neither well and diminishing our overall efficiency. So, resolve not to multitask, even during conference calls with your team when no one can see you, and ask everyone on your team to do the same. Try using your webcams during calls, to further promote everyone’s attention to the task at hand!
2) Set expectations about responsiveness. In the absence of clear expectations, many of us default to thinking we need to answer right away. Instead, adopt a “team default” that you don’t expect an immediate response, unless you say so explicitly. Or be as concrete as possible about when you need the response, especially if it involves more than a few minutes.
3) Set times that are off limits for email and other virtual communication. Just like mice, who will constantly check their food source if they don’t know the timing of their next meal, we check email all the time if we think that the important email from the boss could come at any time. The best way to manage the urge to check constantly is to agree as a team on times when no one is checking. As Leslie Perlow’s book, Sleeping with Your Smartphone, chronicles, while this seems scary at first, if the whole team sticks to the boundaries, everyone’s work and life improves!
Between emails, calls, texts and social media — now all readily accessible through our cellphones — it has become increasingly hard to disconnect from our electronic devices. A study by 3G consultant Tomi Ahonen shows that, on average, people check their phones about every 6.5 minutes, even when no messages or alerts have popped up.
As a business owner, completely unplugging from technology can be scary and even stressful. The fact is, technology allows us to stay on top of everything that is happening in our business. The trick is not letting your desire to know what is happening every second overshadow your personal life.
I strive to set a good example for my kids. I don’t want my children to be on their phones, iPads and electronics all day, and it’s my responsibility to model that for them. During family activities, none of us are allowed to use any electronics and the focus is on quality time.
Here are some tips to help you unplug from business and focus on “me time”:
- Set aside specific times of the day to check your emails.
- Have someone else manage your company’s social media, so you don’t have to worry about constant updates.
- Put your phones away during family and social interactions like family dinners or outings with friends.
This is one of those times I’m compelled to say, “Do as I say and not as I do.” I like being connected whenever I can and actually think “sneaking peeks” at my phone to read (and quickly delete) emails makes me more productive. I’ll blame my journalism background. I was “trained” to be in the know.
But I recognize this isn’t optimum behavior, and many business owners would like to take a break from tech overload. Here are some tips:
As the boss, it’s up to you to set the tone. Don’t email your employees after or before work hours, unless it’s an emergency. If you’re just trying to set things in motion for later in the day, preface your email with something like, “Sending this head’s up. Don’t expect an answer now.” Also, try not to email employees when they’re taking a day off or on vacation.
As for yourself:
- Set limits. Start with making meal times tech-free zones. Don’t check your phone when you’re in a meeting — you need to focus on what you’re doing.
- If you immediately respond to all emails, people will expect you to always do that. Triage your email responses, taking care of pressing needs immediately and then setting time to deal with less crucial messages later. (I am so guilty of this one.)
- I have several email addresses and often check the one I, my partners and clients use. I send my newsletters to another address, which I check later in the day (sometimes at night while watching TV). Emails from people I don’t know (PR pitches, for instance) go to yet another.
- I use third-party tools to manage social media (Hootsuite and TweetDeck), which enables me to separate people I follow into categories. When I’m time-pressed, I just check key categories (like clients) and check the others later (or not).
Here are my top three tips to ensure technology aids work-life fit:
1) Have your staff turn-off email notification alerts and schedule email check times twice a day (say, between 8:30 am and 9:30 am and 4:00 pm and 5:00 pm). This will eliminate constant checking and help staff provide quick morning responses and decrease the chances they will miss other deadlines.
2) This next tip will probably meet some resistance for some staff members: Set a policy of NO cellphone, personal social-media engagement and texting during work hours, except during breaks and lunch outside of the office. Why is this important? Staff must be present, consistent and accountable during scheduled work hours. For example, texting is a distraction for some staff and hurts interaction with co-workers.
3) HPC has a “three-ring rule” for the telephone. All staff members are trained to answer the phone during work hours. Since 1997, it has been my belief that a live voice is what our customers, job applicants and vendors want to hear on the other end of the phone. This approach delivers a sound message to our customers that we are here to provide top-notch services every time you call.
I’ve definitely felt the pressure of technology and how it can disrupt work-life balance, if you’re not using it carefully and mindfully.
One thing that has worked particularly well at FlexJobs is talking with our teams about emails and how they can be cut down. This includes regular discussions and reminders about replying-all versus replying to one person, depending on the situation; which emails require a response or acknowledgement and which don’t; and how to be cognizant and respectful of everyone’s time and inboxes.
Another tip I’ve found useful: Don’t be afraid to say, “You can take me off this email thread” when you’re included in something unnecessarily. No one will be offended, and every time you do it, you’re not only saving yourself time, you’re also teaching the people you work with about what they should and shouldn’t include you on.
You can’t control the amount of email coming in from the outside, but you and your team can collectively make each other’s lives easier by making smart choices about who to include on emails and why.
This is a never ending battle! If you are like me, one of the first things I do when I open my email is go through and delete the ones I don’t need. I also flag the ones that require time to respond, and I try to reply immediately to ones that are quick and easy. I’ve learned that if I do not try to take care of emails, texts, phone calls, etc. in the same day, then “later” could potentially turn into next week.
One tactic that I learned that works well is an exercise called “mind dumping.” This works particularly well at night to clear your mind before going to bed. You simply take out a piece of paper and write down everything that you need to do that comes to your mind in fifteen minutes. Don’t worry about creating an order to the tasks as you jot them down, just list them as they come into to your mind. You can organize it in the morning based on priority. I also carve out time to complete tasks and put it on my calendar. If it is on the calendar, it tends to get done.
Like great runners do, the key is to find your ideal pace and the tools to maintain that pace efficiently. Setting specific blocks of time for different things — answering email, managing your social streams, and working on big projects that require focus — will help you stay present in each moment.
I do my best thinking in the morning, so I block that time for working on projects or writing. It’s tough to resist the inbox or social update, but during that block of time I intentionally shut down my email and social tabs to stay focused and push through. Setting-up a general rule for turn around time on email and blocking 30 minutes throughout the day to respond helps maintain focus as well. I aim for a 24-hour turnaround on email, answering urgent matters during the time I set aside and the remainder after my day is complete.
Knowing you have time allocated for all the balls you are juggling, you can resist the urge to look at your phone while you are on the move and, instead, take a moment engage with someone, take in the world around you or simply breathe.