Advertising
Advertising

Take a Vacation from Your Email!

Take a Vacation from Your Email!

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.

    Advertising

    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.

    Advertising

    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.

    Advertising

    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:

    Advertising

    • 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!

    More by this author

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively How To Stop Procrastinating and Get Stuff Done Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) The Science of Setting Goals (And Its Effect on Your Brain) Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Trending in Featured

    1 3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively 2 How to Master the Art of Prioritization 3 How to Stay Motivated and Reach Your Big Goals in Life 4 How to Stop Procrastinating: 11 Practical Ways for Procrastinators 5 11 Reasons Why You Aren’t Getting Results

    Read Next

    Advertising
    Advertising
    Advertising

    Last Updated on July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

    Advertising

    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

    Advertising

    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

    Advertising

    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

      Advertising

      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

      Read Next