Laptop exhaustion imageFar and away, the biggest mistake I made starting out in business was making myself too available and responding to email way too often. I wanted to seem competent and trustworthy, and the easiest way I knew to do that was to be perpetually available. I tried to be unavailable as little as possible (bordering on never), and I responded to everything with the same level of urgency (right away!).

That set expectations for immediacy that were sustainable when I had two clients and handled 30 emails a day. Many clients and many, many emails later, that no longer works. But because of those early days of over-availability, I’ve created unrealistic expectations around my response times and abilities (not to mention unrealistic expectations about what responses the emails actually require).

Being perpetually available to everyone has also been damaging to others’ perceptions of my time, for two reasons:

  • First, it makes it seem like it’s easier to “just ask Marissa” than to do the legwork (or headwork) on one’s own, which makes me seem more like a human information desk than a woman running a business and trying to do epic shit.
  • Second, when I succeed in appearing perpetually available, clients assume I can handle lots of last-minute requests and will respond to everything right away, because I appear to not be swamped. But I am swamped. (Happily, for sure, but still!) So I can’t handle lots of last-minute requests, and I can’t respond to everything right away. (Which is okay, because not everything needs a right-away response.)

The integration of email and self-value

What I failed to establish right off the bat was that my email is a communication tool, and not a measure of my value.

When we keep our records, contacts, schedule, and notes in our email, it’s easy to forget that, at its core, email is meant to facilitate the exchange of information. Processing large numbers of email might give an indication of a person’s productivity, but it really doesn’t give any clue as to their effectiveness. Cranking out responses to email fifteen and twenty times each day shows how available a person can be, but it also indicates that some other parts of that person’s life or business are being disregarded in order to create that availability.

We either laud Inbox Zero as some kind of digital holy grail, or we boast about the thousands of emails in our inbox. We’ve actually managed the mother of all integrations: we’ve connected our email to our measure of self-worth.

And I, as a fledgling business owner, carried that one step further and integrated my email with my worth as an entrepreneur. If I wasn’t cranking through emails, I wasn’t doing a good job.

There’s more to business than checking email. Hell, there’s a lot more to life than checking email. I just… kind of forgot that for a while.

Giving unavailability its proper worth

Being unavailable is a benefit. I want my doctor to be unavailable sometimes–it lets me know she’s got time to care for herself and rest up so she’s alert when she treats me. I want my mechanic to have unavailable times–I don’t want him so overworked and resentful of his job that he cuts corners and does a substandard job on my car. I want my favorite authors and artists to be unavailable a lot–it’s when they’re doing the creative work that sustains them and delights me.

Being unavailable is not a failure. It’s not even a shortcoming. It is a vital and important part of being a writer, a business person, a creator. The boundaries we erect around our availability are our way of acknowledging what time and space we require to process, create, produce and grow. By declaring independence from perpetual availability, I can declare my dedication to effectively handling my clients’ work, to giving myself the rest and time off I require, and to giving myself the space I need to create.

What is your unavailability worth?

Go ahead. Declare your own independence from perpetual availability! Boldly announce that you won’t check your email after 4pm, because you want to take a long walk with your dogs before spending the evening with your kids. Fearlessly take back your mornings for sipping tea and journaling by refusing to answer the phone until 11am. Value yourself enough to be unavailable.

Do tell…

Are you with me on no longer being perpetually available? How do you allow yourself unavailability, and what value do you derive from it? Do you allow others to be unavailable, or do you expect others to be available whenever you are?

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