READ TIME: 7 MINUTES
If you knew me in college, or you studied in my vicinity during finals or midterms week, you might remember my red and white Chi Omega ice chest.
In peak study mode, I’d fill this little guy – lovingly paint-penned with owls and carnations – to the brim with cans of Dr. Pepper, with just enough room left for ice. If chain-smoking is enjoying one cigarette after the other without pause, I was a full-fledged Dr. Pepper chain-drinker.
I tackled my Dr. Pepper addiction a few years ago. It definitely was NOT cold turkey, took a lot of tapering and strategy – and today I’m mostly Dr. Pepper free. If you’re a soda junkie like I was, let me know and I might just do a post sharing how I did it.
After recovering from Dr. Pepper, it would be a few more years before I kicked another bad habit.
It all started in 2007 when I upgraded from a pink Motorola Razr to a Samsung Blackjack. Y’all, I thought I was so cool. The commercial, if you remember it, featured a sleek black smartphone spinning slowly to the soundtrack of AC/DC’s Back in Black. That song would become my ringtone, obviously.
The best part of having a smartphone was instant access to email. I felt important, even if it just meant getting a syllabus update a few seconds quicker than my classmates.
Then came my first job post-college, a Senate campaign that came with my very own BlackBerry. It was maroon.
From that point forward, I was hooked on email.
I was hooked on access.
I was hooked on that important feeling that came with being needed, now.
As the years passed, and I – along with many of my friends – moved up the ladder in government jobs, and the BlackBerry leash got even tighter. It was absolutely the norm for everyone to keep their phones on the table during Thursday dinners in case their boss needed them immediately. And most of us worked in media relations or communications director roles, so a media inquiry spiral was always just an email away.
With every ding, every vibration – we learned to talk through the interruptions and understood that our friend, head down, tapping furiously on his BlackBerry, was obviously just as important as we were.
At my desk, both Outlook and Gmail were open on my double monitors at all times. Every email warranted an immediate response. Especially to my boss with the five-minute rule: any email he sent required a response within five minutes. I was alert and on my toes, always.
This is also around the time that my insomnia entered the picture.
I’ve been my own boss now since September-ish of 2016. And the funny thing is – despite having exactly zero clients for the first few months – I found myself checking email as if I were still bound to a boss with a strict five-minute rule.
Checking email at red lights. At the dinner table. Stepping away from family events to deal with the red notification number on my iPhone. Except absolutely none of it was… important.
It was just West Elm letting me know that gold flatware was on sale.
That’s when I realized there was a problem.
So I turned off my notifications. No more vibration when I got an email. No more little red number on my home screen.
That should fix it, right?
Instead, worried constantly that I was missing something. I checked email even more often, only to be met with nothing new. Somehow, getting rid of the notifications made the problem even worse.
HERE’S WHERE MY OLD FRIEND DR. PEPPER RE-ENTERS THE STORY.
There was an old Dr. Pepper clock in my step-dad’s office growing up, with the numbers 10, 2 and 4 in red – Dr. Pepper Time. Drinking Dr. Pepper at 10, 2 and 4 – according to the old commercials – would keep you pepped and moving through the morning, post-lunch and afternoon slumps.
I decided to apply Dr. Pepper time to emails. Only opening my email at 10, 2 and 4 (and once in the evening) – instead of throughout the day.
Y’all. It was HARD. A major shift for this email addict, and it took some time to adjust.
7 THINGS I LEARNED WHILE KICKING MY EMAIL HABIT
Here’s what I found:
1. My priorities were mine
By waiting until 10AM to open my email inbox, I was able to set my own priorities for the day, instead of allowing my inbox to dictate my to-do list. I was in control.
I was also less stressed. If you’ve ever checked email at a red light and found something urgent or problematic in your inbox, and you literally can’t deal with it in that moment because YOU’RE DRIVING – you’re stuck with that stressed out feeling until you stop and handle it. By only checking email at designated times, I completely eliminated that feeling altogether.
2. I got more work done
Since I started work projects after setting my priorities each morning, I was able to knock out chunks of focused thoughtwork or writing before getting distracted with email. That concentrated time made a huge difference in the volume of work I was able to produce for clients.
Also, consider that checking email is a major cause of task-switching. Task switching is moving quickly from one unrelated task to the other. An example is writing a proposal, stopping to answer an email about upcoming meeting logistics and then switching back to the proposal. Turns out, it can take up to 25 minutes for you to completely regain focus after an abrupt task switch. I can’t afford to lose that much time, can you?
3. I started processing email differently
Instead of starting at the top and working my way down the list of new emails – responding to each one in order, I found myself using a new system to process them in terms of priority and action needed.
First, I scan everything new and delete or archive anything irrelevant.
Then, I open important looking emails from clients, etc and determine whether action needs to be taken.
If no action is required, the email is archived or put in a folder.
If I can respond quickly – a yes or no answer or something I know off the top of my head, I respond quickly and move on.
If I can’t respond quickly, it gets a red ACTION ITEM tag and added to my Trello to-do list. If I feel it’s necessary, I’ll send a quick reply and let that person know I’m working on it and will get back to them soon.
4. Most emergencies are NOT emergencies
If a client or fellow non-profit volunteer emailed with an urgent problem, many times they were able to find a solution before I had an opportunity to respond. This kept me from spending my time on something that they were able to solve all along, and helps them be more self-sufficient. Win-win.
5. Most of my email was junk
And I hated the clutter in my inbox. I went on an unsubscribing spree and signed up for Unroll.me. Now, zero sale emails and only a few newsletters hit my inbox. The rest are in a daily Unroll.me email digest that I can quickly skim and delete.
6. Most people had no idea
Although this is certainly a case-by-case basis with your higher-ups, (see the Five Minute Rule Boss example above) fewer people than you may realize expect an immediate response to email. Most people didn’t really notice or care that I had made a change.
7. People will adjust
There were a few times that folks were miffed that I didn’t respond to an email sent at 8AM requesting some sort of action. The “urgency” was often a result of that person’s poor time management – and they expected everyone else to use email like Instant Messenger in order to make up for their lack of planning.
I made it clear to those offenders that I’m only in my inbox 3-4 times per day, and if something is truly urgent a phone call is welcome. Most people hate to pick up the phone these days, so that was a good deterrent.
“Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.” – Bob Carter, author
7 STEPS TO KICKING YOUR EMAIL HABIT
If you’re interested in kicking your email addiction, these are the baby steps that worked for me:
Turn off the email notifications on your phone.
Close your email program on your computer.
Choose your dedicated email time.
Create recurring appointments on your calendar to block out your dedicated email time.
If you work with a team who tends to use email like Instant Messenger, let them know about your new email checking times in order to set expectations.
Consider a program like Slack to manage more urgent inter-office communications and keep needless chatter off of email.
Give yourself grace when you don’t stick to your new plan perfectly. You’re breaking what is likely a years-, if not decades-long habit of being constantly connected. But, if I can do it – you can do it.
So how is your relationship with email? Do you have any tips or recommendations that I didn’t mention? Let us know in the comments so we can kick the habit together, be more present and live a little better.