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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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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:

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    • 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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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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