• Create individual downtime. Managing your e-mail is one thing, but sometimes you need to escape from it. You can try the strategy used by Danah Boyd of Microsoft, who periodically declares an e-mail sabbatical and ceases all electronic communication (she recommends doing it for a minimum of two weeks). If that’s too extreme, you can choose to respond only within certain windows of time in the day, and block out “offline” hours in your calendar. During these times, you can turn on your “out of office” message to let people know that your response may be delayed…for the 10 percent of messages that may actually need a response.
• Create organizational downtime. Nathan Zeldes, formerly of Intel, has been a thought leader in this area, cataloguing and promoting ideas such as organizational “quiet time,” e-mail quotas, message chargeback and accounting systems, and limited-access e-mail servers. Volkswagen AG has stopped its BlackBerry servers from routing e-mails when employees are off-shift (this applies to union members in Germany, and senior management is exempt); other companies are declaring “no e-mail” periods over important holidays; still others, such as Paris-based IT services company Atos SA, are contemplating banning the internal use of e-mail altogether.
• Make a fresh start. Those who feel overwhelmed, like Wired columnist and Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig, have sometimes declared “e-mail bankruptcy.” Out with the old e-mail address and in with the new one. Starting over, you can develop better habits in sending, receiving, and responding to messages, while severing connections with those whom you prefer to leave behind.
• Power down. When all else fails, remember that you can turn off every one of these electronic devices. In our leadership development programs at McGill University, we routinely remind executive attendees to slow down, step back, and reflect thoughtfully on their own experiences. But that doesn’t just happen; you have to make it part of your management routine.
These are all significant steps, and none of them are easy. They require saying no to forces that, consciously or unconsciously, assume that you will always be available. As the CEO of a major Canadian high-tech company once said about e-mail: “You can never escape. You can’t go anywhere to contemplate, or think.” But that doesn’t have to be true. You have a choice: Will you control technology so that it works for you, or will you let it undermine your practice of management? It all depends on how much attention you are willing to pay to your habits: the way they are now, and the way they ought to be. And remember, there’s always an off button.