Taking control of your communications

Last week the big news was Harvard rescinding admission for 10 students over online posts, and everybody (including me) reminded students about social media and college admissions.

But social media isn't the only way that we communicate online, and some of the "old-fashioned" things like email and text messages are still incredibly important. This week I saw a post from Patrick O'Connor in his Counselors' Corner blog about fighting "Summer Melt, a mysterious world where new high school graduates swear in June they are college bound, but never show up for class in the fall." O'Connor recommends counselors keep sending reminders to graduates about deadlines and what to do throughout the summer by using a Remind account and a pre-paid disposable phone (so the graduates get the reminders but don't soak up all the counselors' vacation time texting back). Most of O'Connors recommended messages end in "check your email and see. Not sure? Call the college."

Reading his post almost sent me into a full-on Old Man Rant. Once you've graduated, it's no longer someone else's job to remind you what to do! If you can't remember to check you email to see what you need to do for college, you probably shouldn't be going to college! What's wrong with these kids!?! (Just imagine these in ALL CAPS.) But I calmed down pretty quick. First, O'Connor reminds us that "summer melt" is most common for low-income students and first-generation-in-college students. These students are far less likely to have anyone to ask for help after they graduate and far less likely to have anyone nag them to prepare for college. They're less likely to have consistent online access outside of school, and they're more likely to be working a job and taking care of family during the summer. What's wrong with these kids is often that they have no idea what they're doing, no good way to get help, and not enough time to figure it out on their own. I get that.

Plus, I can relate. One of the most embarrassing and discouraging times in my life was my first day of class in grad school. It was 2001. I had internet access at home; I'd been introduced to Google a few months earlier; I occasionally checked my email though there was rarely anything useful there; while I didn't have a cell phone, my wife did, and she even had a first-generation Blackberry. I showed up for my first class, a seminar on Literary Theory. I had a pad of paper, I had two pens, and I was ready to go. But before class I noticed all the other people around the table had big stacks of paper they had highlighted and annotated. I finally asked someone about it, and learned that the professor had assigned about 60 pages of reading before the first class. He'd sent everybody the syllabus and assignments a week earlier over the school email. I'd never bothered to check my new school email account, because who would email me there? I spent every minute of that three-hour seminar looking like a slacker and feeling like an idiot. I've checked email pretty obsessively since that day.

Whether you're a first-generation college student or a legacy, whether you're from a lower-income home or a multi-millionaire, whether you're an technological early adopter or a holdout, you could probably do better maintaining and controlling your communications, so here's some advice.

Online, you have at least three selves. Personal, social, and professional. Keep the separate as much as possible. Don't send intimate details or embarrassing photos over easily-forwarded email. Don't send unwieldy reply-all emails. Don't ask colleges to contact you at CrazyDonutDudeFromMars@booze.com. Have different accounts and platforms for different types of communication. It's not being too uptight or dishonest to keep them separate; it's being a functioning adult.

Clean up loose ends. If you have accounts you no longer monitor, either set up automatic forwarding to an account you do monitor, or shut the account down. When I taught English to high school seniors, almost every day in the fall the college counselor would stand outside my door trying to corner a student to talk to them as they left class. Students would often ask "Why are we talking about this here? And why now?" The answer was, every single time: "Because you haven't responded to my messages on Naviance or my emails." This isn't just an online problem--if you've moved recently, make sure you're getting your mail.

Don't rely on notifications. If you're expecting an email, check you email. Don't rely on noticing the notifications on your phone that something has shown up. In fact, it's best if you disable as many notifications as you can. Be intentional.

Have a device backup plan. Know the answers to these questions before you have to: what will I do if I break or lose my phone? If I lose online access, where else can I find it? Where will my next computer come from, and when? I have a new iPad pro that I use for meetings and working on the go. But when I'm at home, I work on a desktop I got in 2009. You better believe I have a backup plan for when it decides to quit working. Because it will quit working at the worst possible moment. 

Consider Inbox Zero. The best way to deal with all your communications is to actually deal with all your communications. An inbox filled with a random mixture of important messages, silly notes, and useless spam is an inbox that's going to sabotage your happiness. There's a decade of articles about Inbox Zero, modifications to Inbox Zero, and other, better ways to do Inbox Zero. Find one that works for you, whatever it is. You can tell yourself that an inbox with thousands of items is what works for you, but there's a 99% chance you're just lying to yourself.

Understand how you prefer to communicate, but be prepared to adapt. If there's a way you prefer to communicate, tell people what it is. Don't make them guess the best way to get in touch with you. But also remember that the other person also has a preference, and sometimes their preference wins. 

Thanks for reading! Please share this with someone who would like to read it, and follow me on Facebook and Twitter.