A few weeks ago, I returned from a week-long technology-free vacation with my family. No computer, no phone, no email.
When I got to the office and checked my computer, I had hundreds of email messages waiting for me. I took a deep breath and started in on them. Three hours later, my inbox — a week’s worth of messages — was empty.
Contrast that with my experience the next day, and each day after that, when I’ve spent well more than three hours each day on email. Some of that time involved back-and-forth emailing, but still, the difference is dramatic.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I use email to distract myself. Whenever I feel the least bit uneasy, I check my email. Stuck while writing an article? Bored on a phone call? Standing in an elevator, frustrated in a meeting, anxious about an interaction? Might as well check email. It’s an ever-present, easy-access way to avoid my feelings of discomfort.
What makes it so compelling is that it’s so compelling. I wonder what’s waiting for me in my inbox? It’s scintillating.
It also feels legitimate, even responsible. I’m working. I need to make sure I don’t miss an important message or fail to respond in a timely fashion.
But it’s become a serious problem. When we don’t control our email habit, we are controlled by it. Everyone I know complains about email overload.
Email pours in, with no break to its flow. And like addicts, we check it incessantly, drawing ourselves away from meetings, conversations, personal time, or whatever is right in front of us.
But it’s not just the abundance of email that’s our problem — it’s the inefficiency in how we deal with it. Each time we check our email on the fly, we lose time pulling out our phones, loading the email, reading new emails without taking action on them, and re-reading those to which we haven’t yet responded. Then, back at our computers, we re-read them again.
It’s rattling us. According to USA Today the number of lawsuits filed by employees claiming unfair overtime is up 32% since 2008. The major reason for the increase? Email on devices like smartphones is intruding on our personal time.
The solution, I believe, is hidden in my post-vacation email experience.
Instead of checking email continuously and from multiple devices, schedule specific email time during the day while you are at your computer. All other time is email vacation time.
We are most efficient when we answer email in bulk at our computers. We move faster, can access files when we need them, and link more quickly and easily to other programs like our calendars. Also, when we sit down for the express purpose of doing emails, we have our email heads on. We are more focused, more driven, wasting no time in transition from one activity to another.
I bulk process my email three times a day in 30-minute increments, once in the morning, once mid-day, and once before shutting down my computer for the day. I use a timer and when it beeps, I close my email program.
Outside my designated email times I don’t access my email — from any device — until my next scheduled email session. I no longer use my phone for email unless I’m away from my computer all day.
When the urge to check arises — and it arises often — I take a deep breath and feel whatever feelings come up. And then I focus on whatever I’m doing, even if what I’m doing is waiting. I let my mind relax.
Here’s what I’ve found: I don’t miss a thing.
In fact, it’s the opposite. I gain presence throughout my day. I am focused on what’s around me in the moment, without distraction. I listen more attentively, notice people’s subtle reactions I would otherwise overlook, and come up with more ideas as my mind wanders. I’m more productive, more sensitive, more creative, and happier.
I’m also going through my email faster and with more attention than before. I don’t make those I’m-moving-too-fast mistakes like copying the wrong person or sending an email before finishing it or saying something hurtful. So I’m also more efficient.
But what if someone needs an immediate response? Worrying about that is precisely the kind of misguided rationalization that reinforces our addiction. I haven’t angered anyone with my new process. In fact, I don’t think anyone has noticed my mini email vacations because responding to an email within a few hours is perfectly reasonable. And, in the off chance that they need a response within minutes, they’ll find another way to reach me, either by texting or calling.
Email is no longer an overwhelming burden to me. I’m spending an hour and a half a day on it, which for me is the right amount. You may need more or less time per day. Experiment and then schedule the appropriate time slots.
The hardest part is resisting the temptation to check during your off-email hours. My advice? When you have the urge to check your email, check yourself instead. What’s going on for you? What are you feeling? Take a deep breath and relax into an undistracted moment.
For a brief moment in the middle of a hectic workday, it just might feel like you’re on vacation.
Originally published at Harvard Business Review