I was talking to a girlfriend (hey hey, Voxer) last week about email discipline, specifically the art of not “checking in” throughout the day. It’s a slippery slope: you hop on your phone to peek at the weather, and then you find yourself “checking in” on Instagram, Twitter, your email account. You click on that Buzzfeed article with a cat and a hedgehog performing a piano duet to ‘Islands in the Sun’ (I made this up but it likely exists) and – boom – you’ve lost twenty minutes of your day.
It’s distracting at best.
And something else entirely at worst.
Years ago, Ken and I were on a double date with good friends. We chatted excitedly over one another, planning an upcoming trip. We’ll split groceries, sure, you want to bring a blender? I’ll cover gas. Can you even believe it’s in less than a week?!
But my friend stopped talking as she pulled her phone out from under the white linen tablecloth.
You guys. I just got an email, she said. I lost a client to another bid.
We didn’t talk about vacation plans for the rest of the night. We didn’t talk about much of anything. My friend silently pushed pasta around her plate as we attempted to cheer her up, as we asked questions, as we tried to let her process it all, to let her feel sad or angry or disappointed.
I think I just want to go home, she’d said.
Whenever my mother-in-law calls with a topic that requires more than a quick response, she’ll ask a question: Is this a good time?
It’s a question of kindness, a clear sign of respect for someone’s time.
It’s a courtesy that I’ve begun offering myself.
Before I check Instagram, is this a good time?
Before I check Twitter, is this a good time?
Before I check my email, is this a good time?
Am I in a proper state of mind to receive good news, or bad news, or something between? Is this a good time for me to exercise self control, to weed out the sales and offers and enticements landing in my inbox? Is this a good time for me to respond to a seemingly aggressive comment with grace and curiosity? Is this a good time for me to react to what is required of me in a way that reflects character and judgment?
The answer, often, is no.
It is nearly impossible to do this in a distracted state, under the table of an Italian restaurant, or in the grocery store parking lot, or waiting, engine stalled, passing minutes in the carpool lane.
My friend used to talk about that dinner, about how a single email had ruined the whole date. We laugh about it now, but only so much.
I’m not an advocate for rigid, taut rules and grand sweeping expectations. For some of us, a disappointing email is just that: a disappointment. We move on. We rejoin the dinner table. We laugh along, we make plans, we tell ourselves we’ll react to the disappointment later.
For others, the disappointment lingers, and we’re no longer in the mood for bacon-wrapped dates or double dates. We’re no longer in the mood for much of anything at all.
An email interrupted our life.
And we allowed it to.
Last week, my mother-in-law called.
Is this a good time?
We were headed out the door for a Chinese lesson, and I was finishing a grocery list while looking for the (always-missing) pacifier.
You know, can I call you right back? I say. We’re hitting the road in a sec.
Sure! she says. It can totally wait.
It almost always can.