While you were away…

You deserve a break. A real break. Go on leave for a bit. The words can wait.” – Well-meaning supervisor.

So I did. I took time off. Stopped writing and everything. Sure, I knew I had to come back to the words later, but I could defer them a little bit. It’d be ok. And it was. I was on track and had some time up my sleeve before my completion date loomed. I had flexibility.

Flash-forward a couple of years; post PhD.

God. You look knackered. You need a break.” – Well-meaning colleague.

“Yep.” – me.

And so for the last little bit I have been in Far North Queensland attempting to catch some fish and commune with nature in the Daintree Rainforest World Heritage Listed Area. With the exception of some spectacularly bad luck with the fishing, it’s been great. I am beginning to feel relaxed. ‘Work’ is fading into the background.

Except, it’s not.

It’s always there, you know? Just in the background. A vague awareness that the emails are piling up and that when I get back I’m going to have to catch up on what I missed. Gah.

It’ll probably take a week, maybe more, this catching up busyness, as I deal with well over a few hundred emails and all the new work that continues to pour in. For a week or so I’ll be in the electronic salt mines trying to piece together what happened and what I should do about it (if anything). And there’s the rub; even if the email doesn’t require action, I still need to read it to know that I never needed to read it in the first place. Catch–22. Gotchya.

So this got me thinking; thinking about the role that email plays in our lives and the power we give it over our thoughts and actions. It doesn’t really matter how you define ‘work’, whether it is working on your thesis or grading papers or whatever it is that you do for most of your waking hours, the fact seems to be that no matter how efficient we are, no matter how many systems we put in place to stem the tide, that there is always more to do.

For me, work seems to mostly arrive by email. Student requests (usually poorly structured and astonishingly short on context), meeting requests (often making the student emails look positively expansive by contrast), FYIs from colleagues (who, apparently, have so little understanding of what I do that they tell me things I just don’t need to know about), and occasionally something important that absolutely, positively demands my attention right then and there. Even when I was PhD student, I had to deal with emails from supervisors, administrators and various others. Email become one of the main ways in which things got done and expectations got managed.

How did we get to the point where email = expectations? How did we get to the point where managing your email = managing others’ expectations? What can be done about it?

And as I sit here in FNQ thinking about this, I realise that I thought I had an effective mechanism in place to manage others’ expectations – the out of office reply on my email. I’ve been thinking that because I had crafted a polite (and not even a little bit passive-aggressive) OOOR that I had bought myself some time. Some time that I can spend doing what I wanted. Like fishing. I’ve been thinking to myself:

“Work. It can wait.”

But it can’t, you see. The OOOR hasn’t so much bought me some time as borrowed it. I still have to pay it back (with interest). The work still needs to get done. It is expected.

Now I’m not pointing fingers at my current workplace – it doesn’t matter who I talk to or from which industry they come, the story is the same – there is a growing (set?) expectation that once someone has sent an email, that their bit is done.

“I sent you an email about this…”

Take for example the recent industrial furore over the shipbuilders who were told – via email – not to turn up to work for their next shift. Since when has email become so core to the way in which we transact work that it is ok to sack people[1] through it?

And so we get closer to the the real problem: email, for all its reply functionality, doesn’t work well when people stop attending to it. In fact, the OOOR does the exact opposite of what it was intended for: it gives comfort to the sender that the email has been received (and so from their point of view: “job done”), but it leaves the responsibility of replying firmly in the recipient’s email court. All those poorly written, half thought-through emails remain in the inbox, waiting for something appropriate to happen to them, something like me working overtime to catch up on what I missed.

The net effect:

I didn’t really get to go on leave. Deep down, I am still at work. Psychologically, I don’t get to have a break. The point of having break to refresh my capacity to do better work is diminished, lost.

So what can be done?

The solution to this problem is not a technological one, but a behavioural one. To truly be able to take advantage of ‘time off’, we need to know that we can come back to our work rested and ready to tackle the work that is coming towards us, not kill ourselves by trying to “catch up.” We need to begin to pay attention to the ‘socio’ part of this socio-technical system we call email/expectations. For that is all it is, a system. A system that we can change, if we choose to.

My solution to this problem is a two-step approach[2].

  • Step 1: When I get back to work, create a special folder in my email client called: While you were away… and then move every email that is in my inbox into that folder. Studiously ignore it from that point on.
  • Step 2: Begin to let people know that I have archived all email that arrived during the period that I was away and will be working from a clean slate. If there they sent anything that they think absolutely needs my attention then they need to let me know. Otherwise, I’ll assume that it’s ok for me to safely ignore. I was, after all, on leave.

I’m willing to bet that very few people will actually re-send those ‘important’ emails or that I’ve missed anything so mission-critical that someone else hasn’t covered for me.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Right now, though, I’m off to another World Heritage Listed Area – Mossman Gorge – to soak up the bliss and I promise you I won’t be thinking about work at all.

Maybe you should have a break too? You know, a real break? It’ll do you, and your work, good.


  1. I’m aware that this is still playing out in the courts, but the example is instructive.  ↩

  2. To be fair, when I left to go on leave my email inbox had nothing in it, I was blissfully at “#inboxzero”.  ↩