Session 2: Email, Multi-tasking and the blurring of the work/home divide
This is the second part of a seven-part series on faith in a digital age, the first session was on advertising on a digital age. And the outline of the series is:
Week one: Advertising in a Digital Age
Week two: Email, Multi-tasking and the blurring of the work/home divide
Week three: Advent of the internet and a connected age
Week four: Cell phones and a continually connected life
Week five: Social media and the projecting and mining of the digital self
Week six: Dating and relationships in a digital age
Week seven: The dangers of a digital age
This is a series of classes I’ve been teaching with my congregation that I’ve been attempting to capture digitally so that they could be used by other communities or small groups or for members who are unable to be present in class.
I remember in the 1970s and 1980s when I was growing up the promise that technology would enable us to work fewer hours and spend more time at home with people doing what we enjoyed. One of the cartoons of that age, the Jetsons, the father only worked a couple of hours at a very leisurely pace and then came home and spent almost all of his time with his family. The reality is that people are not working fewer hours, they are working more hours than previously. The quantity and quality of work an individual person can produce has increased dramatically due to technology but now we are expected to do more work with fewer people. We do less physical work than we did a generation ago but our time at the office or engaged with work related items has increased dramatically.
Email starts out as a tool in the business, academic and military. Originally it took a dedicated network of terminals connected to a larger computer and I remember at Texas A&M when I was a student in the early 1990s logging in on a ‘dumb terminal’ to check my email for assignments from class. Email was much less convenient but it was also limited to devices connected into the main server and so your email for work stayed at work. Email would soon evolve to become far more connected and capable and this would create both new possibilities and new challenges.
One of the benefits of email is it is free. Now understand it is free because someone else, either the office or school we are associated with or advertisers have paid for the servers and infrastructure required to make the email possible. Yet, it is free which, unless you are the postal service and have seen electronic communication eat into the volume you deliver, is a good thing. Email is also able to carry immense amounts of information. For example, my congregation sends out a weekly email to the congregation which includes documents, links as well as highlights of events occurring each week.
One of the realities of email is that we get overwhelmed with information. Most people can relate to the experience of opening your email account and checking many of the emails to delete even before you open them. We are exposed to a lot of information and it becomes overwhelming and so we have to learn how to filter what is vital, what is important and what is not important. We have always sorted, even before email we would quickly sort our postal mail and determine what was trash and what was worth opening. Yet, even once we open an email, we quickly see what we think may be important and one of the realities is that information often gets missed. For example, the synod (the higher body over the churches of my denomination in the North Texas-North Louisiana region) sends out a weekly email update which includes events occurring in the region and if something is not in the first several events there is a strong possibility that I may have stopped reading at that point. We have become so overwhelmed with information that we have to find ways to limit so that we can focus on what we believe are the important things.
In any technology that communicates by text one of the things to understand is we do not have a number of the physical clues from voice and body language that we use to insert the emotion accurately into a message. Most of the information we take in when we speak to another person is non-verbal and so it is easy with text-based communication to misinterpret the emotion of the sender. For example, let’s assume that I was in an accident prior to arriving at the office and the first email I read I assume that the author is yelling at me. Now the way the email is worded may lead to this interpretation but it may also be about my own shame or anger at being in an accident. I may transfer my anger with the person I had an accident with to the sender or if I am ashamed of being in the accident, I may feel that I deserve to be yelled at. But these may have nothing to do with the intent of the sender, they are things I have read into the text message.
One of the other things it is easy to do with email is to send a message to more people than you intend or the wrong person. Many people can relate to times where they intended to forward a message and replied instead or they wanted to reply to an individual and they unintentionally hit the reply all response on the message.
People could reach out for work related things by phone long before email, but email was really the first area where we see an increasing tendency to take work home with us. We became available to people from the office, once email was connected via the internet, twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week. I know many people will take their email with them on vacation and respond to it, or they may attempt to respond to email in the evening or during a meal. This can become an unhealthy dynamic for us as individuals and for our relationships.
Email was one of the first areas where we saw the advent of digital multi-tasking. Especially with the advent of push notification we see email constantly interrupting our day. So, most people who have outlook or another email device on their computer and phone will receive a pop-up whenever an email comes in and our eyes are immediately drawn to it and we make a decision whether to open the email or allow it to sit until a later point. Yet, even the reality of looking at the pop-up and making a quick decision has taken us away from the work we are doing and those who study efficiency have seen a drop in efficiency from these frequent interruptions. It takes our mind time to switch between tasks and to engage what is being asked of it and then to re-engage what we were working on initially. Multi-tasking doesn’t make us more productive or efficient, it actually is a productivity killer. It is like when your computer has multiple tasks open the available memory and processing capability it has is reduced for any one task so it runs slower. Computers have evolved quickly to be able to increase their processing capacity but the human brain cannot evolve in the same way. We simply were not made for a world of continual interruption.
In our culture we seem to value being busy. I’m guilty of answering the question, “how are you doing?” with the word busy and sometimes we wear our constant activity as a badge of honor. ‘I’m really important because I am always busy.’ Yet, I think we need to talk about the reality that people use being busy the same way they use drugs and alcohol—as a numbing device. If I am busy doing something that has meaning to my life and my relationships that a good thing, but if I am busy so that I don’t have to think about the brokenness in my life or my relationships or so that I can avoid difficult conversations and feelings then we are using our activity to keep us numbed.
One of the other things that can happen with all of these technologies is if we don’t set our own healthy boundaries, we will allow the person with the least healthy boundaries to determine how much of our time they can demand. The person who believes they need verification from you or your attention to validate their importance can take time away from the people in your life who truly are important to you or the things in life that give you value and meaning. I will talk about some of my own values below but I think it is a very healthy thing to reflect on how we use any technology and when are the times we feel like it is impacting our life, health and relationships in a negative way.
Is checking an email a bad thing? No, but sometimes the way it dominates our life can be. I know there are times when I spend multiple hours responding to emails after a weekend and that is time that is taken away from being present with other people, doing the work I need to get done on a weekly basis and doing the creative work that brings life and joy to my life. One of the questions to ask is, “Is this a productive use of my time.” Frequently it can be, but it will not always be. If your answer to the question of the use of time being productive is frequently no, then it may be time to look at establishing some boundaries and thinking how you might limit the amount of time you spend with email or any other item.
So, as a pastor and I want to help us think through this from a faith perspective and help us to imagine how we might live a good life. I will also share some of my own boundaries below that have come through my own wrestling with these issues. I’m not perfect at this, I continue to have days or weeks where I am not as diligent or healthy as I would like to be. To begin examining this question from a faith perspective I am going to start with the two great commandments. Here is how the Gospel of Mark tells the story where the two great commandments are introduced:
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these. (Mark 12: 28-31)
I’m going to focus in on the second commandment, and in particular the second phrase. If we are going to love our neighbor as we love ourselves it means we need to be able to love ourselves. It is hard to love your neighbor more than you love yourself. When we are not taking care of our needs we often reply in anger, frustration or in resignation that this is one more person who is taking us away from what we want to be doing. We set boundaries so that we can be present with our neighbor. To be able to be present with another person is one of the greatest gifts we can give them.
For me this also goes back to my baptismal identity. In my baptism I am reminded that God values me for who I am, not primarily for what I can do to earn God’s love or favor. God’s grace frees me from this continual seeking to be good enough in God’s eyes and my baptism reminds me I am already loved and valued. I have a plaque on my wall that came from my advisor in seminary which reads:
Neil Eric White, remember you are a baptized child of God; for that is the basis of everything else you will become.
My value does not come from how busy I am but from who I am as a child of God. There are times when I forget this and I get caught in the trap of looking important and busy. Yet, I am valuable not because I am busy but because I am a person created in the image of God.
A part of our identity as humans is that we were created for connection with God and with one another. That is one of the things I take away from the narrative of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 and 3. One of the predictors of an early death is the lack of strong interpersonal connections with family and a network of friends. We need interpersonal connection and technology can help facilitate that and it can also take us away from acknowledging the humanity of another person. Have you ever been interacting with someone when they suddenly interrupt the conversation to interact with their email or their phone? Or have you talked with someone and they never looked away from their email during the entire conversation? How did that make you feel? It can make you feel unseen, unvalued and unloved. For parents I think this is one of the places where our messages can speak louder than any words we say: our children watch us to see a model of what is important and how they will interact with the world. If they see us modeling that email or work is more important than their conversation, playing with them, and physical signs of affection then they will also look for meaning and value in their work and electronic devices.
Here are some of the boundaries I use as a person who has thought through some of these items from the perspective of faith and seeking a better life: I include these a descriptive and not as prescriptive, they are what I do and I would invite you to think about how you might set your own boundaries.
- I attempt to engage email in a couple blocks during the day. Typically, I try to respond to email in 24 hours if a response is needed. My normal pattern is once when I begin my work day, once before lunch and once later in the afternoon.
- I do filter based on who an email is from and the content of the title whether I even need to open an email. Do I occasionally miss something? Yes, but I am willing to risk missing something for the time and the freedom I gain from this.
- I do not open email on my day off unless I feel it is something that needs a quick response or something that will cause me anxiety not to respond to.
- I do set aside times to be present with people and if I am present with someone, I will not look at my email or my phone until that time is over. I also do not check email or phone when I am out on a date with my wife, when I am working out or working in the yard. It can wait
- Between 9 p.m. and 8 a.m. I typically don’t check email and I assume any type of communication I receive needs to be an emergency. If it is not an emergency, I attempt to let the person know politely but firmly that this is not an emergency and when they should contact me.
I do believe that we as people were created for rest, that we need a Sabbath and that means finding a way to be away from the demands of work for a time. My hope in this is that we can be both curious but also to provoke some challenging conversations about the values we have and the type of life we want to live. I don’t think of email as a negative thing, but I do know it can be used in a way that is detrimental to our lives, our health and our relationships. I do this as a way to model not only for my congregation but also for my children what is important. There is a phrase I learned from my mentor in seminary that says, “Don’t worry that your children aren’t listening to you, worry intently that they are watching everything you are doing.” If we say we want them to value other people and then we check our work email or our personal email instead of interacting with them they see where our true values are and they will emulate that. If we use digital technology and devices as a way to entertain and distract them while they are young don’t be surprised when they use them to stay entertained and distracted when they are older. They often learned their behaviors by modeling what we ourselves have done.
List the positive and negative aspects of email.
How do you feel when you are interrupted when you work? Do you feel like email is an interruption?
Have you ever used being busy to avoid a hard conversation or to avoid thinking about brokenness in your life or relationship? Has email become something you are addicted to checking?
Do I model using technology in a way that I would want to model for my children?
What boundaries would be healthy for me to set around my work? My response to email?
Do you feel like your email overwhelms you with information? Are there ways you can limit the emails you receive or filter them more efficiently?
How do we show another person that they are important to us?