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 )