Update: Anti-Email Checking Challenge!

So back in March I wrote about how checking my e-mail too often was getting in the way of my productivity, both by sucking WAY too much time away from other things and by causing a loss of focus that pulled me away from where I was, kind of like Shelly Duvall does to Jack Nicholson in this scene from The Shining.

Losing my focus led to EVEN MORE time lost because losing my focus made my mind cloudier, which not only made it more difficult to work, but also made that same amount of work take longer.  (There’s some other stuff in the post too, but that’s the basic gist.)

So I set myself an Anti-Email Challenge: from that point forward, I’d move the e-mail icon on my phone to an out-of-the-way place and only check my e-mail at set points of the day (once after my focused creative worktime was finished, and again at the very end of the day).

The set rhythm of the two checking times kept me on track, and planning my email around those two times became a natural part of my day.  I stopped wanting to pull up my phone and check email because I was bored, and I also stopped worrying about missing important messages, since weeks of following the twice-daily system proved that simply wasn’t going to happen.

I was feeling more focused and more confident, because I’d set a challenge and it’d worked!  I was at the top of my game, and felt like I could do anything.

Then I got my new Day Job and that all went to shit.

Well, kind of.  The new daytime work schedule meant that I didn’t have a natural mid-afternoon point to check my e-mail during anymore, so I started pulling up my phone at random times and falling into the old habit of reading messages as they came in—the same bad habits I’d fallen into before.

To make matters worse, since my natural 7:30 pm e-mail checking time was also now my dinnertime, I started doing an e-mail check immediately after dinner—which most nights was the exact time that I was supposed to be starting my creative work (!!!!!). This meant that I was losing writing time to e-mail time, which was all kinds of not OK.

The daytime e-mail checks were happening for a simple reason: whenever I’d finish a work task or just needed a break, I’d pull out my phone to distract myself, and whenever I pulled out my phone to distract myself, my natural instinct was to check e-mail.

I did some reading about this earlier, and apparently my behavior’s pretty common: checking e-mail not only gives us something to do when we feel bored throughout the day, but it also provides us with some stimulation in an age where we’re used to being constantly stimulated—and e-mail, unlike watching cat videos, doesn’t make us feel guilty because we feel like we’re doing something productive. (This strikingly succinct article about email checking explains this more thoroughly, so you should totally check it out right now).

Checking email didn’t provide the break I was looking for, it just gave me one more thing to do.  Whereas a real break would involve walking around, talking to a coworker, or staring out the window, checking email isn’t a real break because it’s just more multitasking to deal with.

All this has been enough to make me come up with a new Daily E-mail Plan, which looks like this:


Ian’s Brand-New Awesome Don’t Get Distracted By Email Plan (Daytime Day Job Edition)


1. Go Back to Checking Email Only Twice a Day

I did it once, and I can totally do it again.

The first e-mail check of the day will be on my phone during my lunch break, where I’ll deal with anything that needs immediate attention (unlikely) or that only needs a quick response (only slightly more likely).  No more phone checking during the day, since it makes me feel too scatterbrained.

The second e-mail check will be during my 8:00pm to 11:00pm evening work session, but only AFTER creative work or other tasks for the day are taken care of.  This carries the added bonus of letting me deal with email all at once at the end of the night, so if I’ve got three messages to write or reply to, I can write them all at once and waste less time switching between tasks.

This is similar to my old twice-a-day schedule, and if all goes well, it’ll mean less time wasted and more time focusing.


2. No More Phone Distractions During Work Time

This one’s going to be even harder, but it’s equally important.

The constant urge to check things isn’t good, especially when you know it isn’t going to lead anywhere.  The new plan is that instead of pulling out my phone during those moments when I need a work break, I’ll stand up, stretch, take a walk, look out the window, run an errand, or even use the bathroom—anything but more phone stuff.

The goal here is to replace phone-checking with physical activity and stimulation, since I’ve found that getting up and moving around clears my head a lot more than messing around on my phone, even if it’s pulling out the phone to do something other than e-mail.


So that’s the plan and I’m sticking to it—watch for another update in a few weeks after I’ve fallen into a rhythm.  I’m hoping for some good results, though—at least until the next change comes to shake things up ;-)

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