If I said that reading this would save you hours this week you might not believe me.
But even if you don’t, you’d likely believe that the way many of us engage with email is costing us hours a week, right?
Hours a week flushed down the gurgler.
Hours a week that you could put into valuable tasks that lead to more of what you want.
Hours a week that you could be doing something fun.
Hours a week that you could be much more enjoying your time than eyes pasted on a screen.
I know we all identify with these goals, which only leaves two questions.
First, what are you going to do with all that extra time?
Second, How Are You Rescuing It?
Now here’s the thing that I’m not going to do here…
I’m not going to give you some “productivity hacks” or tips that may or may not be right for you.
I’m not going to try and get you to “just look at email less” or “shut down your email during the day.”
Instead, I’m going to share with you an important principle and suggest that, if you want to rescue a couple hours a week from your email, you use these ideas to commit yourself to a new email routine.
Not So Easy
In some ways this should be the easiest change in the world, but we all know it’s not so easy.
That’s because email appeals to the “weakest” part of us. 🙂
The part that wants the next slice of cake.
That will order the extra drink.
That wants to surf Twitter or FB or news site again and again hoping for a new update, just for a hit of excitement.
That part also enjoys a shiny new email to light up its day…
How Email Destroys Productivity
See, the problem with email isn’t just how much time you spend in there.
The problem isn’t only responding to too many things, and hence dealing with replies. It’s not just signing up for all sorts of newsletters and having your inbox constantly bombarded with noise. It’s not even spending way too much time compiling emails that could be written faster or dealt with much more effectively by phone.
The bigger problem with email is what’s called context switching, a computer science term which generally means jumping from one unrelated task to another.
It’s here we’re said to lose 80% of our efficiency. I know that seems like an enormous number but when you think about it, you clearly see how much time this can steal from our day.
Last night I had just finished emailing one of my business partners when an email arrived from my friend Molly.
It was about a topic I wrote her on a couple weeks ago, yet as soon as her email showed up, because I was looking at the screen, it became “important” to my brain, so I started reading.
To start with I’m thinking, OK, so what was this about again…
Then I started looking down the thread reminding myself of what I wrote and we’d been discussing.
Then I started to read her email again more closely…
Sending the email to my business partner was directly related to a project I was working on, which like a pot of soup was still hot on the stove.
I wasn’t finished with that task. I chose to interrupt it and write him the email because it perfectly fitted the flow of ideas I was engaging, and hence I wouldn’t have to context switch later to write him that email.
But look where I found myself.
With a pot of good content on the stove, I was sifting through an email from my friend that had nothing to do with what I was doing, let alone anything that was urgent or important right now in my day.
And the cost wasn’t just the time that I had taken to begin reading her email again, but in the context switching that was happening in my brain.
See, this is where we lose that 80% of our efficiency.
I was right in the zone on that content I was creating, but after having dipped my brain into Molly’s email and diluted its focus, then I had to come back to the task, remind myself of where I was, and get the brain back in the zone.
Even in this case where I didn’t get the brain too far down the road of reading and responding to Molly, I lost at least 5-10 minutes of productivity.
On average it’s said that we can take 25 minutes to resume a task after being interrupted!
It’s also said that we are interrupted on average every 1 minute and 15 seconds!
Context switching over and over again every day, you’re burning far more than a couple hours a week.
5 Step Process for Change
Email is tricky for all of us, and I’m sure you’ve already got solutions that are working well for you.
Yet, if you’re looking to get even better with your time, I’d suggest walking yourself through these five steps, and integrating them into your approach.
Step 1. Commit
A hard thing for many of us is translating new ideas into actual change, and you want to begin with a solid commitment.
Truth is, nearly any change can be made immediately—literally, immediately—once you’ve decided you’re ready to make the change.
Think about quitting smoking, a job, a relationship, anything.
It might take you years to reach the point where you’ve decided to fully commit to making the change, but once you do it can happen instantaneously.
Weight loss is a perfect example. It still might take months or even years to burn off the extra pounds, but the commitment to lose weight can happen in an instant.
The same is true here. You want to make a new commitment to yourself to take your email productivity up a notch.
Step 2. New Routine
Taking this idea we’re discussing, how might you tweak your existing email routine?
For anything that matters in life, I suggest writing it down, and I recommend the same approach here.
Rather than just thinking, “ha, yeah, I want to keep that in mind,” I suggest integrating these ideas into a written system for mastering your time.
What changes might you make? What might that new routine look like for you?
Of course I’m not suggesting that you ignore email or kick it permanently to the back burner. Email is crucial for all of us, and we want to give it its rightful place in our schedule, while also avoiding it polluting your day.
Generally, I pass through email 3 times a day—morning, noon, night. I typically batch emails according to projects to limit context switching. I also remove the email icon from the home screen on my phones so I don’t get distracted by a growing inbox.
One of my clients hits email twice a day. Another is always on email, but he’s become very skilled at choosing when he does and doesn’t engage.
A hard thing for all of us in developing our own systematic approach to our time is knowing which choices are right for us.
In many cases, the right choice is to limit the number of times that you visit email each day, but in other cases it’s impractical.
You might “need” or “choose” to keep coming back to email as often as you used to. You might even choose to keep context switching because it works well for you, but add some parameters.
Step 3. Practice
As I wrote earlier, the hardest part about making these types of changes is that email appeals to the “weakest” part of us.
The part that constantly craves stimulation. That is looking for distraction. That wants to have variety. That can easily lose its way unless we use our higher brain functions to direct it.
One of my buddies thinks Snapchat is evil for this same reason. He gets that it’s a bit of fun to people, but also that our brains are so addicted to that type of candy that we’re conditioning our kids to be task switching airheads.
Whether that’s true or not, because our routines are thoroughly conditioned, making these types of changes can take practice, and perhaps even a little bit of will-power to begin with.
But as you keep practicing new habits, you notice how quickly they begin feeling normal, and you want to keep reminding yourself of how your new routine is benefiting you.
A good way to do this is by getting your brain focused on new rewards.
Step 4. Rewards
Again, if we come back to that part of us that will crave the extra piece of cake, or order that last drink that we don’t really want, we know it comes back to email for a reward.
Truth is most the time people are habitually checking email is because it’s satisfying a “negative reward,” a fear like missing out, or being unresponsive, or the desperate hope that email they want has shown up.
It’s this anxiety or worry or insecurity that leads many of us to be compulsively, programmatically picking up and putting down, picking up and putting down, picking up and putting down… our devices.
In this way, the reward is assuaging a negative emotion, but there are far better rewards on the positive side.
Imagine the reward of getting more done and getting better results in less time!
Imagine the reward of a better relationship with your spouse because when you’re with them, you’re actually with them!
Imagine the reward of knowing that email now works for you, instead of you working for it!
Imagine the feeling of knowing you’re a badass with your time and are using your life in the most valuable ways!
Step 5. Iterate
Rarely are solutions one and done.
Even when someone shows up fully committed to making a change, it can take some testing and iterating to get it to stick.
As you’re building these new habits with email, pay careful attention to when the old habits creep in.
Get very clear on the emotional drivers of your choices. Feel what it’s like when you’re pulled into that email, and how good it can feel to resist it and get back to what matters.
Feel that sense of worry or fear or anxiety when you abandon your email for longer than you might have in the past, and really engage it, asking yourself, how do you want to feel?
And, keep iterating your process and training this skill, knowing your true reward is you are doing more of what you want!
P.S. You of course see that context switching relates to all distractions our brains seek, and you might look for other ways to rescue more time every day.