Want to get more done? Plenty of productivity gurus will tell you to check email less frequently. In The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss suggests checking email just twice a day as part of the quest for a more reasonable, productive life.
Since I’m cranking toward a book deadline right now, I thought I’d give that advice a shot. For a week, I checked email just twice during the work day, once at 10:30 a.m. and once in mid-afternoon. The results weren’t life changing, but I did learn a lot about how I work and how other people work with me.
For the first few days my fingers felt almost twitchy when I couldn’t look at my inbox for hours at a time. Every time I encountered a tricky spot in a chapter I was writing, I started moving my cursor toward the Firefox icon on the bottom of my screen. I caught myself but it was still interesting to see that checking email is how I cope with creative roadblocks, stress, and boredom.
Of course, just because I couldn’t check email didn’t mean I couldn’t find other ways to avoid working. I had no limit on websurfing. Consequently, I spent a lot more time reading and commenting on blogs, and perusing Facebook than I otherwise would have.
When I didn’t check email until 10:30 a.m., but started working shortly after 6 a.m., I got a lot done. I wrote and edited whole chapters. I would have written those chapters anyway eventually, but they would have taken a lot longer.
We all love to complain about our inboxes, but this is because we don’t want to read most things that are in there. The messages are irrelevant, or we have to deal with messages we don’t want to deal with. But if you only check email twice a day, you’re almost guaranteed to find at least one message you actually did want to read each time. Maybe it’s a note from a friend, or a client asking about a new project, or fan mail. In any case, checking email is more fun when you hit the jackpot every time.
I mostly stuck to my twice-a-day goal. However, I did flub a few times when I realized that I’d stored vital information in an email. I saw on my calendar that I needed to call someone, but I couldn’t recall the specific information they’d emailed me to talk about. So I had to look. I tried to avert my eyes from any new messages, but I still saw some things—thus breaking the spell.
Most people were fine waiting to hear from me. That’s an important discovery, and one that will help me manage my email time better from now on. More humorously, though, my husband kept sending me emails—while we were both working at home, incidentally—and then would come ask me "did you get the note I just sent?" Nope, but with him standing in the door of my home office, he could just mention whatever it was. Problem solved—though it did strike me that perhaps we should try talking to each other more often.
To avoid the temptation of my inbox, I kept my iPhone off. But that meant I didn’t get text messages either. On Tuesday, I was a bit puzzled when someone I expected to drop by hadn’t shown up by 2:30 p.m. Eventually I turned on my phone and saw the explanatory text from many hours before, but I also saw the rising number on my inbox icon. It was hard not to give it a quick check.
If you check email twice a day, each check takes longer. While normally you might delude yourself that you’ll deal with an irksome note later, when later is many hours later, you face up to the fact that you must deal with it now. Dealing with it takes time.
Even if each check takes only 30 minutes (and at twice a day, it took me at least that), that’s five hours a week. While that’s better than the 14 or so hours many office workers spend on email per week, it’s still more than four.