Personal Improvement 

How I Busted My Email Addiction

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A year ago I left my full-time job to become a full-time personal finance blogger. I loved the first few days. I didn’t have to wake up at a certain time, I didn’t have to get dressed up, I didn’t have to drive twenty five minutes into work, I could just saunter into my office, plop down at my computer and work at my own pace. Then after a while, the freedom allowed my bad habits to fester and I didn’t really recognize my problems until many months later when I started a time budget log. I was checking email around forty times a day!

I tried to tell myself it wasn’t that bad. “It’s not a hundred times a day, It’s only forty.” I even justified it further by saying that twenty of those times were for “work” and twenty were for “personal,” since I had two main email accounts. My time budget log estimated that I spend two and a half hours a day on email. Two and a half hours isn’t bad right? No, it’s horrible. I ran this site for three years on two and a half hours a day, the time after dinner and before bed. My freedom had allowed me to discount my time and waste it on email.

The time log put it into focus and I’m fortunate I was able to discover it as early as I did, but how do I fix it? I need email! It’s how people contact me when they want to ask questions or inerview me or tell me about their new project or book, I need to check my email forty times a day!

Suddenly I realized something, maybe I was addicted to email? Fast forward a few months and now I’m down to checking my email four times a day (with some exceptions). Here’s how I did it and hopefully you can apply some of these ideas to help you bust your email addiction.

Nothing wakes you up like a statistic. Start a time log. It’s a pain in the ass but it really helps you recognize what you’re doing. It’s like budgeting your money. You start seeing where you’re spending your time and you can begin to make conscious decisions about your time, rather than guess at it.

Prove it to yourself that it’s a problem. The Cost of Email Interruption is a 9 page report by three gentlemen at the Computer Science Department of Loughborough University located in the United Kingdom. They discovered something we all intuitively understand, email interrupts you and reduces your productivity. There are some interesting charts about email usage but it all drove at the same point, it takes about a minute to recover from an email interruption, not including the time it took to address the email. To make matters worse, tn their study, they found that 43% of the emails being circulated were non-business related. So, almost half of the emails you’re getting aren’t related to work and it takes you at least a minute to recover after you’ve dealt with the email. That’s a lot of lost productivity.

Identify why you are checking so often. Why did I check so much? My addiction to email was borne from a fear that I would miss something. I was afraid that some opportunity would enter my inbox and I would miss it because someone checking their email every second would respond sooner. I’ve gotten involved in some projects because I was quick to respond, so my fears weren’t unfounded. I busted this by taking small steps that would get me closer to my goal…

Establish daily work goals and action items. I discovered I was checking my email so often because I wasn’t sure what to do next. When I didn’t know what I should be working on, I fired up Gmail. Maybe Gmail would tell me! It was a terrible strategy and so now I keep a list of goals I would like accomplished with milestones. If I’m unsure what I should be working on, I look to the list instead of to my email box.

Make small incremental changes. If I forced myself to only check once an hour, I would cut it down from ten times a day to only eight. I told myself that once an hour was acceptable because that meant, at most, only an hour would pass between when I received an email and when I would respond. An hour is OK, no one is going to fault you for not replying in an hour!

I found that most people emailed me around lunchtime or at night, which meant that the majority of my mid-morning email checks (as well as my afternoon checks) were a waste of time. That gave me confidence to go with a two hour windows, checking when I start the day (I realize it’s a no-no by some), then at 11AM, 1PM, and 3PM (I do cheat and check right before I go to bed). Now I check when I start the day, around noon, and then before I shut it down before dinner. The only exception to this is if I’ve been emailing someone actively, as in replies are coming back and forth within ten or fifteen minutes, then I’ll keep the conversation alive and break my rule.

Be wary of other time wasters. Now that I’ve cut back on email, I found that it’s being replaced with checking the Facebook and Twitter but at least those add business value right? 🙂 (Oh, and I have almost no excuse for Facebook)

Have you taken steps to reduce the burden of email in your life? If you have any tips, I’d love to hear them!

(Photo: gabrielm2)

{ 24 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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24 Responses to “How I Busted My Email Addiction”

  1. Adam says:

    Thank you so much for writing this! I have been addicted to email for quite awhile now and never really sat down and estimated the amount of time I spend on it. After reading this post I immediately uninstalled my Gmail notifier. I think my site is being neglected because of this problem. Hopefully now I will be able to get more accomplished!

  2. tom says:

    I recall Tim Ferriss saying in his book, to check email twice a day.
    So is this similar to what you are saying to set specific time slots for email?

  3. James says:

    In the medical field, we use the C.A.G.E. pneumonic to see if our patient has an addiction. See how you do with email:

    1. Cut back: have you ever felt the need to cut back?
    2. Annoyed: when people bring up the topic, do you get annoyed?
    3. Guilty: do you feel guilty about checking your email?
    4. Eye opener: when you wake up, or get to work, is checking your email the first thing you do?

    Answering yes to any one of these suggests an addiction. If you said yes to all four then it’s time to get help.

  4. Jessica says:

    Facebook is a total time suck for me ever since I got an iPhone!

  5. tom says:

    great points, I think the biggest indicator is number 2 you get annoyed when others bring up the topic.

  6. I suddenly wish that Gmail offered trends on your email account. At what time of day do I receive the most messages? That would be awesome – then I could just know to check after the heavy periods. Are you listening, Google people?

  7. Miller says:

    First off, I agree.

    But I find it ironic that many companies go out of their way to increase “instant communication.” Hello, there Mr. Blackberry. Companies practically invented blackberries (by providing a market for them) to INCREASE productivity. Have they been wrong?? Perhaps so!

    Some people DO need instant contact. How do we balance the two conflicting interests?

    Oh, and I do find it extremely annoying when I’m out with friends and find them staring into their lap (which is under the table), clearly using their blackberries/smartphones. Are they emailing something important, or more likely browsing the internet because they are bored with the conversation?

    Somehow text messaging plays into this too. Mayeb that’s another post.

  8. tom says:

    very well said. People need to rethink what they are doing. Are they using the iphone or whatever for a purpose that will increase their productivity, or give back more time or will it suck up their time?

    Usually it sucks up peoples time.

  9. Patrick says:

    I’ve got an e-mail problem as well. It boils down to me not being as organized or efficient as I should be.

    Great tips, Jim.

  10. Laura says:

    I’m down to checking about 5 times a day, before it was constant.
    Maybe I should of gone for help up the road – I live near Loughborough University 🙂

  11. Guilty! Today for some reason my laptop isn’t accessing gmail and I’ve actually had to go upstairs and check my email on the desktop. Oh the exercise I’m getting!

    I really should put it on a schedule.

  12. My downfall is Outlook. I love that you get immediate alerts when you get a new message, but it causes that immediate distraction as well. I could be totally into a project or task, and then all of a sudden, “hey, what’s Michael have to say?” Curse you email, you necessary evil!

    • Jim says:

      Yeah, I found that turning that off helped me tremendously because email stopped interrupting ME… if I was engrossed in work, I wouldn’t think to check email and it had no opportunity to interrupt my work.

  13. Llama Money says:

    I have all my email pushed to my phone ( gotta live IMAP IDLE ).. so while I don’t technically ever check it…. I get emails constantly. Sometimes I don’t know if it’s the most efficient way to do things, or the very least efficient way. Maybe I should try turning off the instant updates for a couple days to see if my productivity improves or not.

  14. thomas says:

    Yeah, I check email way too much. Of course, I’d get a manager pop in every time I didn’t respond in 2 minutes.

  15. Patrick says:

    I am a culprit of checking my email too often and need to start writing a time log as well. I do agree that along with checking email, just looking at other things online do cut into my productivity and I need to cut back on those.

    • Jim says:

      Just tracking it will open your eyes as to how often you do it and how long you spend on things. Even if you do it for just one day, it’ll be useful. Try it out!

  16. I absolutely applaud you for cutting back on your bad habit of checking email frequently. I’m currently reading Timothy Ferriss’ “4-hour workweek” and he recommends exactly what you’re doing, setting defined times when you are allowed to check your mail. I find this helps for more than just email, like checking espn for breaking news or slickdeals for the latest deals.

  17. Rap Music says:

    Wow I can really relate to firing up the email (or in my case checking my blackberry) just waiting for it to tell me my next step. Setting daily goals is a great strategy. However, in my case, I think I’m gonna start using your time-logging suggestion for my blackberry usage lol. What a habit. I know that by reducing how many times I check it on a daily basis, I will clear up some good quality time.

    Thanks for your story, and offering advice to all of us!

  18. Email addict here. This video by Merlin Mann would be very helpful to those who talked about organization of emails.

  19. fathersez says:

    Even if you checked once a day, it still looks like an awful lot of mails to clear.

    And perhaps the real issue we should watch out for is internet addiction, not just email.


  20. JC says:

    My problem is that I have google chat open and most of the time I’m just on there talking to people =(

  21. Marsha Egan says:

    Is so glad hear a success story! I like the way the statistics motivated your change, and also the way you gradually shifted to checking only four times a day.

    I think all of us have been away from our desks or in meetings for over an hour, and the sky did not fall in because we weren’t there to check our e-mail incessantly.

    If everyone would stop using e-mail urgently, I think we could all collectively take better control of our work.


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