Take a Vacation from Your Email!

Considering how useful – revolutionary, even – email is as a communication tool, it can also be an incredible drain on productivity. If you’re anything like me, you have discussion listservs, newsletters, Google alerts, Facebook updates, blog comments, advertisements, automated backups, reminders, and all manner of other stuff pouring into your inbox all the time – all in addition to emails from actual people actually trying to communicate with you.

Of course you know to minimize these inputs, to limit updates to only the ones you most need, to evaluate every newsletter to make sure that it truly provides value (whether in information or entertainment), to subscribe only to the listservs that offer the most use, to unsubscribe from ads whenever possible, and so on. And of course you know to set up filters to divert the essential but non-urgent stuff into a “read later” folder or its equivalent.

But still it comes. And while deep in the recesses of your mind you probably know that you should only check your email at set times throughout the day, it seems like there’s always something worth checking for in between those oh-so-reasonable times – a reply to a personal email sent the night before, an important piece of information you can’t advance on some important project without, a listserv thread you’re deeply engaged in, or whatever.

And so, time slips away. You check for that one piece of important something, and it’s not there but there’s another important email that grabs your attention. And by the time you deal with that one, yet another. Then the one you’re looking for comes through, and that needs dealing with, and then an unexpectedly urgent email, and then and then and then…

And before you know it, hours have passed.

Unless you have a discipline of steel and a heart of stone, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to break free of the email cycle long enough to get some serious work done. I’m no different – I know I’ve frittered whole days away dealing with the email that came in while I waited for something crucial. And even if you are able to get a few hours away, it can be hard to get your mind off that anticipated message, especially if you’re expecting bad news or the crucial piece of information needed to break through on a significant project.

Let’s take the whole day off!

I wish I could be more like Tim Ferriss. Through a clever system of automation, deferral of routine tasks to employees, and – let’s face it – gall, Ferriss is able to limit his email checking to once a week or less. Alas, I don’t have underlings to delegate my email to – and I’m not sure I’d be comfortable doing so even if I did. And I definitely don’t have the gall to set an autoresponder telling everyone who emails me that I’ll get to their email sometime in the next 10 days! While for Ferriss his system is about teaching others to respect his time, I can’t help but feel that it’s disrespectful of the person who sent an email to assume that their communication isn’t important enough to look at right away.

But who knows? It works for Ferriss, and if I really paid attention to such things, I probably would find that nothing I ever get demands an immediate response, or even a “within-the-week” response. Lord knows my own email backup has kept me from responding for longer than that, even to emails that are probably pretty important.

Still, that’s a huge jump, and not all of us have Ferriss’ taste for taking huge jumps. Instead, let me make a more modest proposal: make one day each week an email-free day. Quite a few businesses have adopted “email-free Friday” as a policy over the last several years, to varying degrees of success.

The concept is simple enough: for one day of the week, you just don’t open your email program (or webmail). Turn off notifications on your Blackberry or Droid phone, exit your Gmail notifier – do whatever you have to do to avoid email for that one day.

The concept is simple, but the execution might be a little complicated! Here are a few additional points to make it easier:

  • To avoid any “anticipation anxiety”, try not to send out any emails requiring response the afternoon or evening before.
  • Keep a “to-email” list close at hand all day to jot reminders of emails you’ll need to send the next day.
  • Fridays seem like a natural day, since it’s when the flow of work (and work-related email) is tapering off, but I think a mid-week day is probably going to have a greater payoff. The natural Friday drop-off in work might eat up any gain you get from going email-free!
  • Set up an auto-responder for that day, including a phone number or other way to contact you in case something urgent comes up. No need to get complex: “I am currently occupied in other work and will not be able to respond to your email today. If you absolutely must speak with me, please call at (888) 555-5555.” (There are a couple of good examples on this post by Tim Ferriss.)
  • If you’re not sure you can manage a whole day without email, allow yourself to check email only at the very end of the day – say, after 4pm. DO NOT check in the morning – that’s how they get you! Pay attention, though, during that late check on your email furlough day – you might notice that you don’t ever get anything that couldn’t wait until the next morning of the following Monday.

Let’s all try this for a month or so and see if we aren’t more productive. If you have any tips for how to make this work, let us know in the comments!

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