Just a few weeks ago my entire family went on our first ever week-long cruise. So of course I took a long several books to enjoying while lounging by the pool or on the beach. One of those books was "Unsubscribe" by Jocelyn K. Glei. The tag line from the cover of the book is "How to kill email anxiety, avoid distractions, and get real work done." The book totally delivered on its promise, now the only question was whether I could live up to my end of the bargain.
I'm one of those people that is really into technology, so it should come as no shock that I carry my smartphone everywhere I go. And I do mean everywhere. Somewhere along the way I got into the habit of checking my email from my smartphone many (many, many) times a day. I didn't realize just how many times a day I would check my email until I started reading "Unsubscribe." It turns out there has been some research done on the habit of email checking. Humans have a bit of rat brain. Let me explain. Back in the 1930's a psychologist named B.F. Skinner did a series of tests with a device called the "operant conditioning chamber" which later became known as the "Skinner Box." The whole purpose of the device was to test the effects of positive reinforcements on rats. Great, so what does this rat experiment have to do with humans checking their email. It turns out that when a rat or a human is given some kind of random positive item (in the case of the rat it was a treat and in the case of us humans it is an email that we were looking forward to receiving or maybe even not expecting at all but it had good news) it releases chemical in our brains as a response to that positive thing. It has been proven that this chemical release is actually very habit forming and addictive. So over the years as we all get random emails (some good and some bad) we have trained ourselves and become slightly (some more so than just slightly) addicted to checking our email. We literally get a "fix" be checking our email repeatedly throughout the day. This was explained within the first few pages of the book and it was enough to grab my attention.
The book goes on to explain just how disruptive checking email can be to someone who is trying to accomplish things other than email. It is devastating. Each time you check your email it takes you away from another task and it takes time to re-focus back on the task you were doing before being distracted by email. Wow, this just described everyday at work for me (and at home for that matter). This doesn't mean that email can't be extremely important. In my day job most of my critical communications and work for that matter take place via email. But there is a lot of noise in my email inbox as well. So how do you approach email in a way that still allows you to address critical emails in a timely manner while not allowing all the "spammy" type emails and other non-spam but not critical emails to keep you from being productive. Its actually pretty simple. The answer is summarized below in a series of bullets but the exact implementation of these items will depend on your exact situation (one size does not fit all):
- Do your most important work 1st. So do 60-90 minutes of important work BEFORE you check email in the morning.
- Only check email 2-3 times a day (not 23 times a day)
- Specify blocks of time each day that are dedicated to processing email (schedule calendar events for this if you have to)
- Don't leave the email app on your computer running, even in the background, during the day. Only open the email app when you are processing email.
There is a lot more to the book than just the 4 items above, but these are the most important take always. For me, I am now not checking email until at least an hour after I get to work each morning. I typically work from home for about an hour so that gets me almost 2 hours of work in before I crack open pandora's box (better known as my email inbox). In order for me to get away with only checking my email a few times a day I had to customize a few things. Since email is my main mode of communication at work I needed a way to be notified when a really important email came in that needed my attention before my next email processing block of time. So I setup a very short list of VIPs on my work provided iPhone. That way, anytime I get an email from anyone on that VIP list a notification pops up on my iPhone screen. I'm in a unique situation in that I have 2 iPhones, one personal iPhone and one work iPhone. Because I have a personal iPhone I am able to use my work provided iPhone strictly for managing work emails. That allows me to setup my work iPhone as a 3rd monitor (next to my 2 computer monitors) so that when a VIP email comes in I see the notification pop up on my work iPhone lock screen.
The book is a fascinating read and you can get through it in just a few hours. If you spend a decent amount of time checking email everyday I highly suggest you take a look at this book...it just might change or life. Worst case scenario, you will be a lot less distracted and a lot more productive.