Is It Time You Were Reliably Unreliable?

Guggenheim MuseumA few weeks ago, I emailed a colleague about something when most people would be fast asleep.  When she replied within five minutes, she concluded her email by saying, “Don’t tell anyone I responded so fast to you.  I don’t want anyone to expect it.  I like being reliably unreliable.”  That phrase has stuck in my mind ever since.

I know what it’s like to have a student email me at 12:17 AM with a question about an essay due that same day at 9:30 AM, and then they complain that I was unresponsive.  I know what it’s like to have a colleague call my office and leave a voicemail on Friday after 5:00 PM asking me to take care of something before a workshop set to start the next day at 8:30 AM (a workshop I am only supposed to attend and not help coordinate), and then they express shock that I chose to walk from the parking lot to the workshop and bypass my office, missing their request entirely.  In such cases, I no longer feel bad.

I used to feel bad.  Early in my career, I thought I needed to handle each request as soon as it came in no matter who made it or in what manner.  I wanted to be seen as collegial and caring.  I wanted to help anyone anyhow I could.  As my career progressed, I grew tired of trying to grant instant gratification.  I was resentful, especially when those same people seemed to care little about offering similar courtesies.

I thought long and hard about what was really a part of my job and what was not, and I made some decisions.  I’m a night person, but I stopped consistently answering emails sent late in the night.  Sometimes I would, and sometimes I wouldn’t.  If I came into campus on a day I was not expected to be there, I would sometimes open the door to my office and make myself available and sometimes would not.  In other words, I would be available when and how I said I would, but I would not always jump on requests made at other times.  I stopped being the person who tried to please everyone and instead became someone who kept my responsibilities but was not always everyone’s good boy.  It actually took some effort on my part.  There were times I would say out loud, “Wait.  Not now.  It’s not your responsibility.”

Of course, I am not saying you should not do your job.  If you are supposed to be on-call or available to certain people for particular times during the day or night, then you need to be available.  If you have office hours stated on your syllabi, you should keep them.  If you are teaching online and have told your students they can expect a reply to any email within twenty-four hours, then you should reply within that time.  I am simply saying that you do not need to respond to everyone’s request to jump with an instantaneous “How high?”  Be a responsible adult without always being the one who can be counted on for anything at anytime, unless that is something that fits your lifestyle and makes you truly happy.

Frankly, I have been happier with clearer boundaries.  I feel my students, colleagues, and others see me as a professional who takes my work seriously, but I also feel less taken advantage of than I have in the past.  Are you good at being reliably unreliable?  Have you always been that way or is it something you have had to work at? Respond in the comments (but don’t feel you have to do so right now; come back in a few hours if that works better for you).

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickruser nhighberg]

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