30 days to tame email, mobile distractions, and live in the present

I ended up working a lot over my winter vacation. I was already planning to implement Inbox Zero when I returned to the office on January 2, but one incident crystallized it for me. While I clacked away on my laptop on Christmas Eve night, my daughter walked up to me and said “I have a computer too”. She held up a small laptop she’d made with paper and crayon. It was both adorable and sad. I snapped a quick photo with my phone and *then* put away electronics for the evening.

I decided to undertake a 30 Day Experiment for the month of January. I would restrict email checking to a few times a day and avoid all mobile phone usage while with my family. My goal was to “be there when I’m there” and enjoy myself. Our periodic Serendipity Day hackathon was starting on January 2, and I used that time to kickoff my experiment.

How it went down

I started with a haircut, since that always makes me feel more organized. When I returned, I nuked my inbox. There were 2,619 emails in my main folder (That’s after archiving 6,000 messages just a few weeks prior). I moved everything older than 30 days into an “Inbox Zero” folder, which took me down to 214 emails. I then set an email away message:

Happy New Year! As part of a productivity experiment, I will only be checking email late morning and early afternoon. If you have an urgent matter, call me (gasp!) or walk over.

(Note: for several years my voice mail greeting has stated that I never check my phone, therefore you should email me. So if you tried to reach me in January 2013, I effectively dumped you into an infinite loop.)

I wrote out the ground rules of my 30 day experiment and spent the rest of the afternoon preparing:

  • Inbox Zero and limited email checking at work
  • No mobile usage around my family
  • Find little ways to have fun at work, since I’d blown my vacation and the next is a long way off

I’m exceedingly lucky to be able to do something like this. I’m not the one they call at 4 AM when a server crashes. It’s a luxury.

The next morning, I committed to not check email before 11. This was insanely difficult. I met a friend for coffee, rolled in late, and then I baked a loaf of bread in my cubicle, because 1.) bread smells delicious, and 2.) I didn’t give up carbs.

Cubicle bread! This machine was my alarm clock when I lived in Chicago.

Cubicle bread!

What I Learned

My first email check was 11:15 AM and I was ruthless: DELETE. DELETE. DELETE. DELETE. MOVE TO ACTIONS FOLDER… When I hit my stopping point I closed Mail and didn’t check it again for several hours, and that made my day lovely.

Here are some of the things that worked for me:

  • I set an arbitrary cap of 30 minutes per email session, which I rarely exceed.
  • Checking email was really intense for the first few days, but the sooner I got through it, the sooner I quit my email application and then the bliss set in.
  • I challenged myself to unsubscribe to at least one email subscription a day for the first week.
  • Many emails only need a simple one or two sentence response such as “I didn’t work on that project, try asking [NAME].”
  • I close short emails with “Thanks!” or something similar so I’m not misinterpreted as a grouch.
  • I use Mac Mail and iCal instead of Outlook, which means I can have my calendar open without having email open.
  • I informed my colleagues that I’d nuked my inbox and asked them to remind me of any outstanding items
  • I already had several inbox routing rules. I added more until things became manageable.
  • Semi-related: I switched to a standing desk a few months ago and find it much easier to focus on single tasks. I also use Getting Things Done and Evernote to stay organized.

Some tactics I didn’t have to use, but you might find useful:

  • Creating templates for commonly sent emails.
  • Telling someone their email was too long and asking them to summarize it.

In the past, I never let email stress me out, nor did I ever try to use it as a to-do list (that is a bad idea, by the way. ) I viewed email volume as something I had no control over, therefore I didn’t try.

I now see that while email wasn’t stressing me out, I was wasting a ton of time re-reading messages. It wasn’t until I got my inbox under control that I realized how many important messages were falling through the cracks. I still haven’t hit Inbox Zero, I fell off the wagon a few times, but overall feel better and am more productive every day.

Unplugging at home is much more difficult because it’s about a mental state. The technique I chose was prohibition: I kept my phone in my pocket, or on my desk in the charger. That’s it.

I still zoned out and thought about work, though it was more difficult for my daughter to notice without my phone in my hand. Fake it until you make it. The email twice a day rule made it easier to not pick up my phone. Once the phone is out of the pocket for an email or weather check, it’s on to social media, and the death spiral begins. My social media interaction was so much lower this month that I’m sure I did miss some timely news and conversations — though I missed even more boondoggle time.

I’ve had some really genuine, awesome moments with my family this month. We listen to music, make art, and have conversations. We play together at the playground while other parents are on their phone. I walk her to school or head to the grocery store without my phone. I’m very glad to have the capabilities of mobile Internet technology but also delighted to be able to walk away from it.

I’m going to continue to tweak and refine my restricted work email and mobile abstinence experiments. They weren’t meant to end after 30 days.

Over a dozen friends and colleagues reached out after seeing my away message. Many were already grappling with email. One had hired a personal productivity coach. We’re leaning on each other for ongoing support.

I got a lot of free advice from Brian Fitzpatrick, Vanessa Fox, and all of the other attendees at an unconference session on unplugging. Many of my the ideas and tactics above came from that session or followup conversations.

If you’re thinking about something similar, my advice is to start sooner than later. The 30 Day Experiment is a low-commitment way to jump in. Start with Matt Cutts’ three minute TED Talk below.

Finally, my second 30 Day Experiment (28 days, really) is underway! I’m calling a family member or old friend every day in February. This is tough and it helps that most of my family is at least one time zone behind me. I’m excited to see where this one goes.

Update 2/5/2013

I’ve heard a lot of great feedback on this post. I’m going to make the mobile moratorium around my family permanent. That was mentally difficult but I can sustain it. Limited email checks at work is more difficult. An aggressive goal works over a short period of time, but over the long run, it’ll only motivate me if I can hit it more often than not.

There are days when two email checks isn’t feasible. Sometimes my most important tasks involve email correspondence. Sometimes task details are buried in an email. I try to mitigate those situations as best I can: stop the email thread and call a meeting. Or open up email quickly, grab the note I need, and shut it down immediately. In the case of January 16th (referenced in my tweet above), I spent half the day on email. That’s really, really rare. I often work after my family goes to sleep, and that can also mean an extra email check at night. Right now, two checks is working. I’ll continue as is and reevaluate each week.

Yesterday was terrible, but I managed with two checks. Today, it’s been a breeze and this happened:

Email and mobile use both are intertwined, and both invade my mental space when I don’t clamp down. I’m glad I limited both at the same time.

Some related reading:

Matt did a far more ambitious unplugging experiment this month: 30 days without news or social media.

My three minute presentation at Serendipity Day

8 thoughts on “30 days to tame email, mobile distractions, and live in the present

  1. Casey

    The big question for me — is it sustainable beyond a 30-day “experiment”? Think you’ll be able to continue only checking mail twice a day?

  2. Javaun Post author

    Casey, great question. I am going to continue this indefinitely, with some tweaks as needed along the way. I updated the post.

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