A Fellow Dartmouth Alum Discusses E-mail
Not long into a recent Fresh Air interview with Shonda Rhimes, Terry Gross brings up the last subject you might expect: e-mail habits.
Rhimes, it turns out, has the following signature appended to all her e-mails:
I don’t read work e-mails after 7 pm or on weekends, and if you work for me, may I suggest you put down your phone?
Gross and Rhimes discussed the details and implications of this e-mail habit for over four minutes, which is more than a tenth of the entire interview.
Listening to this exchange, I was struck by three points which I think speak to some of the larger issues surrounding work and distraction in a digital age…
Point #1: People are really exhausted by e-mail
The fact that Terry Gross brought up this topic (out of nowhere) so early in the interview, and discussed it for so long, indicates just how important the negative impact of e-mail has become: it’s a universal issue for knowledge workers.
Point #2: People equate e-mail with work
Here’s Gross investigating the reality of Rhimes’s e-mail free evenings:
How do you do that? The work day doesn’t end until after seven for a lot of people, how do you manage to just turn it off after 7 o’clock and on weekends?
What strikes me about this question (and the conversation that followed) is that it equates reading and responding to e-mails with working. In Gross’s formulation, once you stop receiving e-mails for the day, you’re done working for the day. And Rhimes agreed.
I think they’re completely wrong on this point, but this misunderstanding goes a long way toward explaining e-mail’s pathology.
Point #3: E-mail is not nearly as important as we think
Shonda Rhimes is important. Lot’s of important things cross her plate. Many are urgent. She receives over 2500 work e-mails every day. And yet, as she explains:
That’s what I found so interesting, since turning off my phone at 7 pm there’s never been a thing so urgent that I regretted having my phone off.
Gross pushed back at this point, asking if Rhimes simply passed the buck by hiring underlings to answer her e-mails for her after 7, but Rhimes quickly dispelled the notion. She says she built a culture in her production company where you work during work hours and then you’re done.
A Strong Finale
I was perhaps most taken by the simple force with which Rhimes dismissed the culture of connectivity. Here’s her summation:
Work will happen 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year, if you let it. We are all in that place where we are all letting it for some reason, and I don’t know why.
I couldn’t have said it better.
16 thoughts on “Shonda Rhimes Doesn’t Check E-mail After 7 pm”
This is great, and it gets at the fact that emails land in a “bucket”: they’re not going anywhere, and we can trust that they’ll be where we expect them the next time we open our email client…
Cal, Thanks for this post – I missed the interview. Your comments were (of course) on pointe. I had one additional thought. In order for real change to take place in the workplace email culture, LEADERS (like Rhimes) have to set the tone. This is a great example.
It’s about being empowered to realize that work (including email) is something that you do and choose to do or not do instead of something that you’re enslaved to.
To your brilliance!
Elizabeth Grace Saunders
Thank you Cal for this very informative post!
If I could just add a couple of additional considerations that have perpetuated the e-mail culture we live in:
1) A deadly cycle of measurement and reward. Most people who work in professional services firms have their workflow heavily monitored, measured and evaluated based on how many e-mails are getting sent and within what timeframe. Then on top of that their monetary incentives are in most instances tied to how timely they respond within a certain firm-imposed timeframe.
2) The fact that most of the time in the name of transparency or said differently a type of “cover you ass” mindset emails are often used as a tool that assigns legal liability when things go wrong. The era of trust is no longer with us people.
These two factors alone are what pushes us to militantly attend to our e-mails after a while this work habit then translates into our personal life, simply because we have now been trained that way and have managed to align our work habits with our out-of-work habits.
Cal – good post. Can’t wait for the new book. Hope it’s as meaty as the last one. Id love to see a list of what you’re reading these days. Have you read Lewis Howes new book? If so, please let me know if it’s worth a read. I heard it’s already a NYT best seller.
I saw Charlie Rose interview with Ms Rhimes last night and was struck by how closely her story matched the trajectory you discuss in So Good They Can’t Ignore You. When asked why she was so good at her job, she replied something about loving her work and having always had a writing talent, which sounds very passion centric. But when she described her path, it’s clear she didn’t get where she is by knowing exactly what she wanted and going for it. According to the interview, she went to film school almost on a whim, having heard it was harder to get into than law school. Once there, she obviously honed her skills and excelled, but the love seems to have come later.
Years ago I did a project as a change manager with one of The Netherlands’ largest companies. They gave me one of their laptops to use and so I started processing my emails during the evening. I got as many back as I was sending and my inbox was filing up at the same rate as it was being emptied as everyone was dealing with their email at home. Ever since then, for me, the laptop has been the symbol of The corrosion of character as Richard Sennett describes it in his essay with the same title.
Since 2011, Volkswagen, does not relay email after 30 minutes after office hours until 30 minutes before office hours the next day.
However, this doesn’t apply to high level executives, who can still read and write emails in the middle of the night.
Maybe this is why nobody knew they were fudging on the emissions tests? 😉
Great post! I totally agree with Shonda Rhimes. I have so much e-mails concerned with my job so I just don’t check my personal mail box after 6p.m. I am tired of answering all of them.