Far 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.
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?
Ah, Marissa. I must print this post, wall paper my house with it, put it under my pillow, and tattoo it to my arm.
I’ve been reading your Email Genius and biting nails over instituting some boundaries for myself. I run a yoga studio, and rather than yoga being the center of my life, the computer is. The “what-if’s” of not being available were running wild and this post helped tame them.
Thank you thank you thank you.
.-= Michelle´s last blog ..Holding on tightly to letting go =-.
I’m so glad you wrote this and Michelle read it! Now I don’t have to send it to her.
I hope to meet you someday. You are a very wise woman.
.-= Tami´s last blog ..Where it all began. =-.
I love your reframe of “unavailability” as a positive. And I’ll happily cheer you on in setting time- and availability-boundaries that keep you sane and support your best work.
I really resonated with your call to boldly declare certain times off-limits, because when I announced that I was doing Open Office Hour once a week, I worried that I’d get flak for not being available the rest of the time.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen, and my decision to set up firm time-boundaries has ended up being empowering. Also, it’s led me to think about my availability not just in terms of time, but in terms of medium and who initiates contact.
For instance, I don’t like being on the receiving end of phone calls, because I easily go into reactive mode and feel harried. When I’m leading a teleclass, or I consciously set aside time for receiving Open Office Hour calls, however, the phone is a perfectly fine communication medium.
And it was only after experimenting with these boundaries for several months that I felt comfortable changing my voicemail greeting from the standard “I’ll get back to you as soon as I can” (hello, reactive mode!) to a message explaining that I do much more communicating via email. Of course I may need to reevaluate my email policies at some point, so I’m glad to know that when the time comes, I can come back and re-read your post reminding me that it’s OK to check email once a day!
.-= Wendy Cholbi´s last blog ..How to add an audio clip to your WordPress site =-.
It’s like your series on emails is written just for me… thank you… thank you… thank you….
.-= Goddess Leonie´s last blog ..Switch Off Sunday: Do bugger-all-nothing if you like! =-.
A friend MADE me read this (by way of tagging my on a Facebook post. I was helpless…truly.)
I’m just now starting my own business, and some of my friends are woried that they will ultimately need to 12-step me into sanity again.
Hence the point to your blog.
Love it. Will remember it. Will read you again.
Wow. This is awesome, Marissa. Not surprising coming from you, but still.
Forever now, website and email signature has my phone number followed by, “M-F 9-6 Pacific”. In other words, “Don’t call at 5am Eastern to leave me a voicemail because it’s 3am here and the phone will wake me up.” That seems like a reasonable boundary, no?
I talked to someone reacently who said snidely, “The web designer’s voicemail said that he’d call back within 24 hours. Clearly my business isn’t important to him.” ANd I think it’s that kind of mentality that scares us boundary-phobic entrepreneurs into a tailspin. Frankly, I don’t *want* to work with someone like that, so Goo-bye, Mister Snotty Pants.
This year I decided to not only take a quarterly, week-long retreat, but I’m also trying out a boundary that leaves the entire last week of each month for me to work ON (not “in”) my business. If you email me right now, there is a vague “I’ll get back to you next week” auto-reply message and an intention to only hover in email/twitter/facebook, rather than bathe in them all day long.
It’s a little scary. I feel a little lost today, my first day of the 5 days of the first week of trying this. I mean, does posting here count as time “on” my business? So, the rules may need to be adapted. But telling the world, “Sorry, no” is huge. Thanks for the reminder that none of us is a doormat.
.-= Jennifer Hofmann´s last blog ..What’s one tweak will you make? =-.
I enjoyed this post and we debated productivity (especially emails) at my last job. One of my coworkers vowed to check email once a day…at the end of the day. He indicated that this helped him get a lot of work done. I haven’t implemented that plan of action- yet. But I acknowledge that I should probably check my email less often. In other words, I do need to work on setting up some boundaries.
That being said, I’ll take your post one step further. I see people taking cell phone calls at the weirdest times. Let’s say you’re at the movies and your movie is set to start in two minutes…normally, I would not take that call…unless it was an emergency. I see people answering every phone call they get at just about any time. If I’m in line at my local Walgreen’s and the cashier is ready to take my order and my phone rings…chances are, I will let it ring and show the cashier a little respect by paying attention to him/her. I love that cell phones help us stay in touch with each other, but do we need to be attached to someone at all times? Thanks for a great thought-provoking post.
.-= Tim´s last blog ..Weekend Video Diversion: No Pants With Improv Everywhere =-.
This speaks to me in a major way!
This is an excellent article! A lesson I too had to learn the hard way. However, after reading “The 4-Hour Work Week”, my life has never been the same! Being unavailable is imperative, or you will literally drive yourself mad!! lol
.-= Ashani Kiner´s last blog ..The America’s Best Dance Studio Contest Video Series *Special Feature* â€“ The Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory in NYC =-.
The tyranny of the urgent has always been the monster under the bed. First email, now social media in general tend to compound the problem.
This is an excellent post Marissa. One further thought: “I always have time for what’s important.” The key is knowing what is truly important, not just urgent.
Well said, Ken. Importance and urgency are not synonyms.
This is gonna be so hard, but I’m with you. Perpetual availability is so ingrained in my life right now. I can change!
Thanks for the verbal push.
.-= Sparky Firepants´s last undefined ..If you register your site for free at =-.
The other problem I see with over-availability is that then you’re not *really* available to anyone. I’ve been guilty of spending so much time on random email from strangers that I never get (or maybe even see) the most important stuff from, say, business partners.
And as you say, you simply *cannot* do the real, game-changing work without a reasonable amount of uninterrupted time. The constant pings will destroy your creative energy, your clarity of thinking, and your motivation.
I’m very attracted to the email system you worked out for Havi, although I admit I’m overwhelmed thinking about how to make the switch.
Oh Marissa, I feel like you wrote this for me. Thank you. I think I’m going to send this to all my clients. 😉
.-= Lisa Wood´s last blog ..How to Use Twitter to Drive Traffic to Your Website =-.
I love this.
Soon after I began freelancing, I came across the blog of a supposedly very successful freelancer, and she had just blogged about being available for her clients 24/7- she explicitly mentioned weekends. All I could think was, “Are you freakin’ kidding me?!” Alas, I also doubted whether I was professional enough to compare to someone like her since I utterly refused to be available if I received a call at, say, midnight.
So you go, sister! Without rest we can’t be our best. (And apparently I’m a poet and I didn’t even know it.)
.-= Natalia´s last blog ..The power of language and how to hone it =-.
OK, you’re freaking me out! I’m hopping around the blog and thinking you are TOO young to be this brilliant!!
This is sooooooo apropos – thank you, thank you!!
.-= Square-Peg Karen´s last blog ..How (Not) to Name Your Business =-.
I am determinedly unavailable. Because, as Danielle at White Hot Truth says, we’re all so easy to find these days, really … why should we be hostages to anyone else’s random impulse to contact us?
I’m a wage worker with a (very) small home-based business. My business is teaching dance and personal training. I’ve been asked if I have business cards, and my answer is “no.” Why should I spend money to create business cards for people to pick up and forget about? People see me out dancing or out teaching, and that’s when they are most likely to think they might want to work with me. Alternatively, they can find me through the locations where I teach.
Technology challenges can actually be a big help. As an employee, I have restricted cell-phone access during the workday, which I love because people don’t expect me to take calls during the day. 🙂
I almost never answer our landline or fire up email at home. This bad attitude toward availability has not in the least impaired my marketability – or my relationships! It has, however, allowed me to keep improving my own skills so that I’m capable of doing what people pay me to do.
Agree totally. Just read this article and the one on working with “busy” people and really enjoyed it. Somewhere “busy” became fashionable and the technologies designed to help us be efficient and effective started to consume us.
My goal has been to be as effective as possible during the day to minimize any work that leaks into the evenings or weekends. Overall it has been a pretty successful strategy for me.
I’m not sure who said it first, but I frequently remind my teams not to confuse activity with productivity. Email, meetings, conference calls all fall into the activity category if you are not careful about how you use your time.
Just a note to let you know how much this post resonated with me. After months (yes, months!) of planning, we recently took our two kids and six other family members to Disney World for a week. I let my clients know as soon as we made the reservations, then reminded them monthly. I worked my tush off to get my to-do list done (or at least very close to done!) before I left. But what was I doing in the line at Space Mountain?? Answering emails! The irony was that all of those emails could wait until I got back and nobody was really expecting an answer right away. I just couldn’t stop myself from trying to be as on-the-spot as I usually was. Only when I got back did I fully realize that I was my own worst enemy. I need to draw those boundaries and stick to them myself!!!
As someone that quit a stable job in 2001 to start a BBQ joint (which lasted 1 year), my problem was not being able to shake the “availability” feeling. It was part of the reason I went back to working in television broadcasting. I wish I had seen this post 10 years ago! Keep up the great work. Thanks. Steve
Great article. I love it.