Email signatures are fascinating me these days.
I remember when I first learned that I had the option to “sign my emails,” a welcome addition as I had recently mastered my own written signature, a consistent EKG-looking scribble that I was certain would show up in books and on bar napkins someday. That first signature had little more than my name, and maybe a song lyric (as was often the case in the late nineties).
Fast-forward to today, where the lion’s share of emails I get from professionals and college students alike have amounts of text in the signature that rival the email itself. “Here are all the positions I hold!” “Here are my strengths!” “When I inevitably get back to you with ‘Sorry for the delayed response,’ here’s why!” In a sense, it doesn’t surprise me. Positional leadership is affirming. Someone wants you at the helm, and you have every right to be proud of that. But at a certain point, those signatures start to look less like the superhero cape they may have started feeling like, and more like shackles. Left unchecked, they can drag behind you, weighing you down, serving as visual representations of the obligations that may rival other elements of your life.
So as I finally dove into Shondaland mayor Shonda Rhimes’ memoir Year of Yes, I felt affirmed to see something freeing in her email signature: “Please Note: I will not engage in work emails after 7pm or on weekends. IF I AM YOUR BOSS, MAY I SUGGEST: PUT DOWN YOUR PHONE.”
To confirm: Shonda Rhimes, the creator and head writer of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, executive producer of How to Get Away with Murder and the soon-to-be released The Catch, shuts it down at some point. She shuts it down because in addition to all of those things, she is a mother and a daughter and a sister, and she could feel those roles competing with (and often losing to) the ones that our society and grammar have decided earn italics. She expands on her shift in thinking in the chapter “Yes to All Play and No Work”:
I discovered that age-old cliche is true: people do what they like to do. I work because I like working - I am good at it, it works, for me, it’s my comfort zone. Knowing, facing the fact that i was more comfortable on a soundstage than a swing set was incredibly difficult to handle. What kind of person is more comfortable working than relaxing? Well...me. So this Yes required me to change. It’s a difficult challenge for a hard-working,straight-A, obsessive perfectionist to leap into a lifestyle practice that requires dropping everything to...play.
This passage sang to me. Loudly. In fact, I’ve written about my rehab stint for perfectionism here before, so the longer tenured reader knows this about me already. To sum up: Shonda, I been there too, girl. When work comes easily, when you like to work and enjoy what you’re doing, turning the switch off and walking away can be difficult. However, in my experience, staying in that mode for too long makes the work harder to do. Staying in that mode, at the mercy of others - in Shonda’s case, it was the people on her shows and in her writing room that relied on her storytelling - creates resentment, exhaustion, and simple difficulty getting it all done. Seemingly paradoxically, the more time I took away - really away and not sneaking furtive glances at my email or crafting projects in my head - the better my work was when I finally returned to my desk.
While I’m not a champion of treating email as a task or worklist item (hence my lack of reverence for “inbox zero” devotees- good for you, but not my style), I am a believer in it as a distractor. Why? Because more often than not, email doesn’t reflect the reader’s priorities. It reflects the sender’s priorities. So it creates tangents. It divides attention. To quote the modern philosopher Kanye West, it distracts from the creative process. So it creates a kind of psychological heft that choosing to work on your own work on a weekend (full disclosure: as I am right now, while writing this) may not.
Maybe email isn’t the thing weighing you down. Maybe it’s a writing project, or account reconciliation, or even work-related reading. But whatever it is, I stand by my decision to STOP every now and again for my own sanity. And now I can say the strategy is Shonda Rhimes approved- and that name carries some weight around here!
Is it easy? Not always. Shonda echoes that struggle as she admits, “I’m not perfect at it. In fact, I fail as often as I succeed.” But she goes on to say something that resonated inside me, this fellow writer, incredibly deeply: “But what I know is that this downtime is helping to relight the little spark inside, it’s helping my creativity and in the long run helping me tell the stories my work needs to tell. I give myself permission to view this downtime as essential.” A belief so essential, it goes in her email signature- where so many of us place our most important things.
So, you have the permission of a Hollywood Reporter Power 100 list member, and your humble author- after 7pm, make like Olivia Pope and SHUT IT DOWN. Your work will thank you for it.