Last Friday I was kicking off a training at an office in Denver. I looked around the room and noticed that almost every person was on their cell phone or computer. No big deal. The training hadn’t started. So I informed everyone that we were about to start and asked them to put away their electronics.
Most people looked at me confused. Wait, what did he say? The tension in the room built as people realized I was serious. This was turning into a rough start to our first interaction.
I smiled, and asked, “Who here has an urgent deliverable that requires them to be on either their computer or their cell phone for the next 55 minutes?” No one raised their hand.
These folks felt a pressure to constantly check email, but that perceived urgency evaporated with my question. Why did everyone feel the need to be so rapidly responsive?
There are a lot of fields where responsiveness is extremely important. Consider firefighters, ambulances, surgeons, mental health professionals. These fields staff people to be on call so when something urgent arises, they can respond immediately. There are life-threatening consequences for every delay.
In other fields, responsiveness is important sometimes. These fields have developed systems to address some issues immediately and sequence the rest. Consider an account management team providing both customer service and enhancements to their clients. There are not enough resources to urgently respond to every situation, so they invest in solving immediate problems and then sequencing larger issues that require development work. Time well spent.
For the rest of us, our fields require deep thought, not swift responsiveness. Most of us add value to our clients and customers not by being reactive, but by solving complex problems. Unfortunately, responsiveness and deep thought are direct tradeoffs.
The problem is that checking and responding to email feels productive in the short term. To make matters worse, the more quickly we respond to emails, the more we are training our client and employees that part of our value is how quickly we respond. If you are a manager, your direct reports will imitate your behavior and perpetually be unable to think deeply.
Consider this. What would happen if you didn’t check email for the next 3 hours? What deep work would you be able to accomplish? Set a timer now and try this out!