You’re not a victim: empower yourself by controlling your phone.
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You’re lying in bed, minutes away from going to sleep. You’re looking sleepily at your phone and notice a new email. It’s from a parent of one of your students, and the subject line sounds emotional.
Your blood pressure skyrockets as you scan the opening lines. You put the phone down beside your bed, but it’s too late. You’re already rehearsing responses and worrying about how much time and energy this issue will steal from you the next day.
Bye bye, sleep.
On another evening, you’re trying to focus on a complex task and your phone starts buzzing repeatedly. Who’s messaging me like a madman right now?
You try to recenter your focus on the project, but you can’t shake the question. After a minute or two, you pick up your phone. I’ll just see who it was.
Fatal mistake. The teacher chat is popping off with questions about a school event happening the next day, and someone’s asking for support. As one of the more experienced members of the team, you’re one of the few who can answer questions and share resources. You jump in, and now you’re living in the chat for the next 30 minutes.
The conventional wisdom says you’re a victim.
These are well-known problems in teacher land, and the fingers often get pointed angrily at the origins of the messaging.
Why do they need to send me an email so late in the evening?
How dare they message me on my weekend?
Why won’t they respect my time?
First: the practical problems with scheduled emails
One well-traveled admonishment that I’ve heard in the last few years is for teachers and administrators to schedule all emails. Never send in real time on an evening or on a weekend — always schedule it for the next school day morning, this thinking goes.
I tried to hold to that religiously for a while. But I’ve noticed some practical problems with the practice.
For one, scheduled emails can waste everyone’s time.
Let’s say that a teacher emails three colleagues for a solution to a problem they’re facing. It’s entirely possible for all three recipients to craft lengthy, thoughtful replies to the query and schedule them all for Monday morning.
When the three replies arrive, it turns out there’s a whole lot of overlap and redundancy between them — they’re all saying the same thing. It’s a maddening waste.
Scheduled emails can also create confusion.
Scheduled emails can lead to email threads with conflicting or old-news replies jumbled together out of chronological order.
The thoughtful reply that was crafted on Saturday morning has been made utterly irrelevant by a decision made on Sunday night.
Worst of all, scheduled emails can create more stress than ever.
Just put yourself in the shoes of any teacher who comes into school on a busy Monday with no scheduled prep blocks to be greeted by an avalanche of unread emails written since Friday at 3:30. I’m not convinced that’s such a blessing for teacher mental health.
Feeling some doubts around the scheduled email practice, I went to teachers to get a sense of their preference. I posted a poll on Twitter and 189 responded.
As I suspected, the majority of teachers would actually prefer the option (not mandate) of reading school-related communications on the weekend (if and when they want to) versus the Monday morning avalanche.
Two radical phone habits that will bring back your fire for teaching
If scheduled emails aren’t the answer, we’re still left with the phone anxiety I described at the top. How can we keep digital communication in its place and make sure that we are engaging on our terms and not someone else’s?
As Dave Ramsey likes to say, you have to be sick and tired of being sick and tired in order to make real and painful changes.
Perhaps you’re there with phone emails and notifications.
Wherever you are and whatever your lived experience, here are two radical moves that will transform your lived experience.
Habit 1: Leave your phone out of the bedroom at night
What if I told you that there was one simple change that you could make to your life that would produce the following:
- Less stress about work
- Less blue light in your day
- Less electronic activity near your body
- More sex
- More sleep
- More reading
- More pillow talk
- More journaling and reflection
That’s right. Leaving your phone out of the bedroom at night will produce all of these benefits and more. Guaranteed.
I started this practice a few years ago and find it easily one of the most personally transformative changes that I’ve ever made. It’s one of those simple-but-hard moves that absolutely anyone can make that costs nothing.
Even beyond the bullet list of benefits above, there’s a quality of mind that’s hard to describe and impossible to quantify when your phone is not on the same floor as you. It’s like going off the grid, but better.
And you can do it. Of course, I’ve heard all the reasons why people can’t make a similar move to keep their phones away from their bedroom at night.
- “I need my phone for an alarm clock.”
- “I need to be available for my children.”
- “I need to be available in case of emergencies at the school.”
Most of this amounts to “What if” and FOMO.
You’ll be okay without your black mirror beside your head while you sleep, just like your parents were.
Scary habit 2: Keeping your phone permanently on Do Not Disturb
As Tristan Harris points out in The Social Dilemma, things that are actually tools don’t control us. They don’t call to us. They don’t insist on breaking our focus.
Tools do exactly what we want them to, when we want them to. They are humble servants.
It’s for that reason that I don’t want to hear from my phone. At all.
Turning my phone’s ringer off is a no-brainer place to start, but that isn’t enough for me.
I don’t want vibrations when my phone is sitting on a surface. I don’t want my phone waking up (lighting up) with notifications of any kind. Ever.
If I’m occupied with a task, I want radio silence and a screen that stays dark.
And that’s what I get. By leaving my phone on Do Not Disturb (look for the moon symbol) 24/7, my phone never lights up, vibrates, or rings.
My phone tells me that I’m receiving an average of 168 notifications per day, and the apps pictured below the graph show the number of notifications each one would generate on a weekly basis if I allowed them to.
The iPhone exception: favorite contacts can reach me
I can’t speak to Androids, but iPhones allow a small loophole for the conditions I described above.
If I’ve tagged a contact as a Favorite, their calls and messages will come through. That means that my wife, kids, parents, and school administrators can still call and text me. As a husband, parent, and vice-principal, I’m realistic enough to acknowledge that some exceptions must be made.
For the rest of the world, including my colleagues, they are still free to message me on iMessage, Google Chat, WhatsApp, or whatever. I purposely leave badges on those apps, so the next time that I open my phone, I’ll see that I received a message.
But I’m coming to the message on my terms, when I want to. I’m not allowing others to barge in on my work whenever they please.
Why not just remove all school email and apps from your phone?
This discussion wouldn’t be complete without addressing the Scorched Earth method. I know at least one colleague who refuses to have school-related communication (email or Google Chat) on his phone. And I know there are others who believe in that level of compartmentalization.
I respect the intention there, but I’m not interested. To me, the ability to be able to read and respond to emails and DMs from my team when it’s convenient for me is far too valuable.
My logic is that if I can read, file, and respond to 30 emails while I’m standing in the Costco line-up or waiting for a family member in the car, that’s 15 minutes of relaxation time that I can spend with my wife instead of sitting down at the computer.
Or let me put it this way: if I remove all school email and apps from my phone, I’m giving up those micro-opportunities to fend off Email Mountain that a typical day provides. Instead, I’m choosing to either stay longer at the school or give up more of my home time for work.
Do you like those choices? Neither do I.
Instead, I keep all options open so that I can respond to them on my terms: when I want to, when I have the emotional energy, and when it’s convenient for me.
Boundaries create freedom and empowerment
I titled this piece Two Scary Phone Habits because that’s what they are: scary. Most readers will acknowledge some level of logic in my arguments but will likely ignore both suggestions.
And that’s okay. It’s not my intention to should on you.
But if I hear you complain about school messages and emails coming to you at all hours of night and weekend, I’m going to remind you of something: you’re not a victim of some angry parent or over-zealous administrator.
Take control of your phone.
Take back your sanity by giving these two phone habits a chance.
The results just may change your life.
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