Breaking E-mail Addiction

I am reading The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss. He’s only twenty-nine-years old, but wise beyond his years. This is probably the best book I have read on productivity since Getting Things Done by David Allen. I highly recommend it.

man glued to his computer screen

Tim says,

… limit e-mail consumption and production. This is the greatest single interruption in the modern world.”

He’s right. It is amazing how distracting e-mail can be.

Does this sound familiar? You are working on an important project and you get a notice that you have received an e-mail message. What do you do? You stop what you are doing to read the message, despite the fact that this can totally derail you from your current task.

The worst part is that people go through their entire day like this. No sooner are they engaged in doing something important and meaningful and—da-ding!—they get a notice that they have received a new e-mail.

They stop what they are doing, switch to their inbox, and read some inane e-mail that contributes nothing to their current priorities or the project at hand. What makes us do this? This is border-line neurotic behavior. I should know. I suffer from the disease myself.

If you keep doing this long enough—let’s be honest here—it makes you A.D.D. You stay busy all day long and have virtually nothing to show for it at the end of the day. Can we agree to stop the madness?

Based on Tim’s advice, I have resolved to check e-mail only twice a day. It is already having an enormous impact. Here’s what I suggest:

  1. Work on your computer in “offline” mode. You don’t need to be notified when you receive a new e-mail. People can wait. Yes, even your boss.

    Instead, let messages accumulate in your inbox and then batch process a whole bunch of messages at once. For example, I’m on a plane now. I downloaded my messages just before we boarded in Dallas. I have processed 68 messages in 45 minutes, and generated 21 replies. I am now writing this post. It took 30 minutes.

    If I had dealt with these in real-time, as they landed in my inbox, it would have likely taken two to three times as long. Why? Because my attention would be divided between my e-mail and all the other things yapping for attention on my desk.

  2. Only check e-mail twice a day. I mean really … isn’t this sufficient? Again, with Tim’s encouragement, I created an out-of-the-office message that says this:

    Hi,

    In an effort to increase productivity and efficiency I am beginning a new personal e-mail policy. I’ve recently realized I spend more time shuffling through my inbox and less time focused on the task at hand. It has become an unnecessary distraction that ultimately creates longer lead times on my ever-growing “to do” list. In the end, it doesn’t serve either of us.

    As a result, I will only be checking and responding to email twice a day—at mid-day and then at the end of the workday. I will try and respond to email in a timely manner so that my new policy doesn’t keep you from getting what you need.

    If you need an immediate, time-sensitive response—and your request is truly urgent—call Vicki Parr, my assistant, at (555) 555-5555. She will hunt me down and get you the answer you need.

    Hopefully, this new approach to e-mail management will result in shorter lead times for you with more focused and creative work for me.

    Kind regards,

    Mike

    P.S. I do not check e-mail on the weekends. If you have an emergency on the weekend, please call my cell phone.”

    I am only a few days into it, but already I feel amazingly more productive.

  3. Don’t check e-mail first thing in the morning. This has been the most difficult part of my experiment. I am used to checking my e-mail first thing in the morning and last thing at night (and a hundred times in between).

    Instead, I am now focused on getting my two most important daily priorities done first. Before, I would often go days without making any real progress. At best, I was reacting and just trying to stay caught up. Now, I am proacting and making substantial progress on my goals and to-do list items.

My wife, Gail, and my assistant, Vicki, don’t think I can stick with it. They are convinced that I will revert to my old ways. (I think they have a bet going.) We’ll see. One thing is certain: this is going to take some serious discipline.

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  • http://joshuabryant.com Joshua

    While I can appreciate the effort to be more productive, I think this might be heading in the wrong direction. One of my favorite posts you’ve ever made is on your old blog where you talked about the “secret path to the top.” Let me quote:

    “Reality is that we live in an “instant world.” People want instant results. They don’t want to wait. And if they have to wait on you, their frustration and resentment grows. They begin to see you as an obstacle to getting their work done. If that happens, it will begin to impact your reputation. Pretty soon people start saying, “I can never get a timely response from him,” or “When I send her an email, I feel like it goes into a black hole,” or worse, your colleagues just roll their eyes and sigh at the mention of your name.”

    Since reading that post and reviewing my own communication practices, I really took that to heart and realized that I find the people I am most frustrated with are people that aren’t responsive. There’s nothing that bugs me more than sending emails to people having no idea when they are going to be returned because the recipient is completely inconsistent with his/her response times. I don’t want to be in that group. I love being the “responsive one” and creating a reputation for the guy that will respond to emails within 5 minutes of receiving it. It’s done a couple things for me:

    1. It’s a huge goal of mine to be “known” for keeping my word. I think replying to emails quickly plays into this, in a huge way. Although there is still the follow-up factor, when people receive a reply in 5 minutes or less it really leaves them with the feeling of “wow, this guy is on top of it.”

    2. It cuts down other more-obtrusive means of communication. Interrupting my workflow to answer a quick email isn’t really that distracting for me, especially with tools like Growl and Quicksilver, but interrupting my workflow for a phone conversation is. For me it requires more of a mental shift. I’m also a fast typer, and I like to make people feel they are worth my time so I don’t “hurry” phone conversations. When people know they can expect an instant email response from me, they are more apt to email me rather than phone me, which frees me up throughout the day.

    3. I feel more productive when I do take care of emails instantly. My day is basically organized in a list of tasks. I make new ones, check off old ones and prioritize them as the day goes along. The less tasks I have throughout the day, the more time I have to spend on each individual task. If I were to follow the policy of checking my emails twice a day, the action of checking emails would become just another “task” on this list, which makes it much more likely that I would skip over the task for something more pressing or put it off to later in the day if I was finishing something else up. This isn’t the most horrible thing in the world, but it does start to lend to that “black hole” idea. When I respond to emails instantly, instead of email becoming a “task” it just becomes second nature; a different but comfortable means of communication, just like answering the phone when it rings.

    To quote you again:

    “In my experience, the best way to build your personal “brand” within the Company, garner the respect and acclaim of your colleagues and direct reports, and have them speak well of you, is to be responsive. Answer their e-mails and voice mails promptly.”

    Granted everything is relative to personal situations. I’m in a competitive industry (mortgages) and if I’m not responsive, there’s someone else out there who will be. I also don’t have my own personal assistant to take care of phone calls and email management. In my business, people expect responsiveness at a higher level than they would expect from emailing say a CEO.

    Tim’s view is that “This is the greatest single interruption in the modern world.” My view is that communicating with people is not an interruption, it is the greatest single important engagement throughout the day.

  • Jeff D

    Do you carry a blackberry (or like device) – if so, how has this new experment impacted it’s use?

  • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

    Joshua,

    I agree that people are the priority. However, not everyone is of equal priority and sometimes, in our zeal to answer everyone instantaneously, we neglect projects that are a priority to the most important people in our lives. (I have know people who are constantly checking their Blackberry at the dinner table, for example, ignoring their family or the people they are with.)

    I don’t think my two are at odds. From my perspective, responding twice a day is plenty, and I would still consider myself “responsive.”

    But, admittedly, that may depend on the industry you are in and the expectations of your customers. If you are in sales or customer service, my new policy may not work or may have to be adapted.

    For me, rarely does someone need an answer now. Regardless, they will get an answer by the end of the day and usually within a couple of hours. I went to bed last night with an empty inbox and the satisfaction that I had accomplished my most important tasks.

    And, don’t forget, they can always get me via phone if it is urgent. That happened to me yesterday. One of my Board members sent me an e-mail, got my automated reply and called immediately. We spoke for five minutes, and he had the answer he needed.

    Sometimes, to achieve a greater level of productivity, you have to try new things. At any rate, I see this as an experiment. If it doesn’t work, I’ll revert to what I was doing before or try something else.

    Thanks for your input,

    Mike

  • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

    Jeff,

    Yes, I do carry a Blackberry. For now, I have turned the e-mail function off. (This is an experiment.) I am using the phone and calendar functions. It is amazing how I have inadvertently conditioned myself to grab my Blackberry and check for new e-mail. It is a compulsive behavior. I have caught myself a dozen times reaching for my Blackberry, only to remember the e-mail function is off and there’s nothing to check.

    Again, the value is that I am stying focused on high-priority projects that will move the company forward.

    Thanks,

    Mike

  • Dean

    I applaud your efforts in this experiment. I suspect that in many cases checking e-mail so frequently is an unconscious, conditioned response that does not serve a purpose congruent with the energy and time expended. It strikes me that you are trying to make a conscious choice on how to interact and this may just be a first draft of what you work out that is most effective for you. I suspect that it is not a dualistic, either/or thing and it may take some time to get all the nuances down that make it work, but is seems like it is worth the effort. Best of luck to you in your pursuit of excellence.

  • http://www.spudlets.com Marc V

    If a phone rings, do you have to answer it? If your e-mail notification dings, do you have to read and respond? There are times in our household where the phone rings and we let it go, much to the consternation of the children. They are getting better at waiting, though.

    Before cell phones, it was only one phone per househould that would ring occasionally (moreso with teenagers!). Being plugged-in and connected 24/7 is a relatively new experiment in society. I miss the days when people just walked down the street with both arms down by their sides. Now half of them are holding something to their ear, or worse yet look like they are talking to themselves when they have a Borg-like bluetooth receiver attached to their skull. Is resistance futile?

  • http://www.rachelhauck.com Rachel Hauck

    This is a great post and reminder to me. I’ve been feeling convicted about the way I shuffle through my email and blog sites checking for this and thats – knowing I’m procrastinating – er – thinking, yeah, thinking.

    But I don’t want to “think” quite so much.

    Unlike Joshua, I don’t need to be a quick responder. Probably, I don’t even need to respond as often as Mr. Hyatt. Once a day would be plenty. Okay, twice. ;)

    I have new resolve.

    Rachel

  • Nick

    I think it’s too late for me! I’m already ADD about my email. But to be honest, I find that the invention of email (not to mention the computer itself) has been a huge time SAVER in my day to day job as an editor. Any time I “waste” by reading emails every few minutes is time well spent. For one thing, I enjoy the mini-break from my work that email allows me. If I’m working hot and heavy on a manuscript, an email break is a wonderful time-out for me. There is no way I can just check my email twice a day. Frankly, if I did, my time processing them would be hurried and in the long run counter-productive.

  • http://www.dylogy.com Chip Gallent

    I try to practice this as much as possible and really focus on productivity. However, to take the concept a little further – I think we have become conditioned to act as though the “next” thing is more important than the “present” thing at hand. Email, the Blackberry, cell phones, and the immediacy that they offer all seem to have taken precedent in our lives. Just watch people take cell phone calls in the middle of conversations. It’s really no different than the examples of email mentioned here. Great post, thanks.

  • http://absoblogginlutely.net Andy

    As the first post alluded to, this may get you the reputation of being a stumbling block – but then if it’s really that urgent, then the phone can be used.
    Although it’s a great idea (and I do this when trying to get something done) I don’t think it works for most (tech) people on a day to day basis as often email dictates their workflow and organisation of their day.
    The other thing is checking the email at the end of the day – does that mean you block out an hour (or two) each day to have a meeting with your email – if not, then that eventually means you either don’t answer your email as promised or you end up working at home to catch up on the emails that you’ve not yet answered which then means you end up eating into your personal life.

    I have a blackberry too and thankfully haven’t got into the habit of checking emails on it all the time, although I will check email on it if I have some down time such as waiting in the car whilst my wife goes into the library or shopping and things like that. – This means a bb is quite productive and during the office hours, its actually quicker for me to read the email on the blackberry than it is to wait for Lotus Notes to download the email and notify me that I have mail (or open it up).

    Another useful tip might be to train your employees on how to use email productively – ensure that email subject lines provide a response time such as FYI, NRN (no response necessary), Thanks (instead of replying to an email and including the word thanks (or even worse the original email) – just prefix thanks to the subject,# = end of message – this means you don’t have to open the email – just scan the subject line.

  • http://web.mac.com/ericlodi/iWeb/Orgameth/ Ericlodi

    YES! Multitasking is the mighty killer of productivity, and e-mail has become a permanent source of uncontrolled multitasking for many… After all, e-mail is designed to be an asynchronous means of communication, so people should resort to instant communication when needed (phone, SMS, chat) instead of compulsively checking e-mail.

    I adhere to the advice of checking e-mail only twice a day, but I would challenge the automatic reply you have put in place: it increases e-mail traffic, adds up to inbox piles (and confirms your address to spammers?). Also, people feel upset when they receive unnecessary auto-replies.

    Best of luck with your new e-mail discipline!

  • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/blog Larry

    Mike, I think this is only one instance of the way technology has both enhanced and degraded our lives.

    Television is another, which has a similarly counterproductive effect on personal life.

    My summer experiment is to unplug the TV for 10 weeks. So far so good.

    I’m trying to use both (e-mail and TV) without being mastered by them.

    Your tips will help, tx.

  • Kyle

    My wife, who is a teacher, is fascinated with recent studie on the brain and how it learns and thinks. She tells me that it is impossible to multitask since your brain can only focus on one thing at a time. You think you are multitasking, but really your brain is moving back and forth between tasks.

    I have been feeling overwhelmed by e-mail lately, and in no way do I get as many e-mails as Mike. I’m at fault for the state I’m in since from time to time I fall into a rut of working with a drive-up-window mentality. Put your order in, and I’ll serve it up pronto! I love being the responsive one, the person who always comes through (after all, Responsibility is one of my five strengths). Unfortunately if I’m concentrating too much on being the go-to guy for others, then I’m not being responsible in getting my own tasks done.

    I have been using Outlook in off-line mode for quite some time now, although not as consistently as Mike is trying to be. I usually do it when I have blocked off time to do a task. When doing this, if you want someone to get an e-mail from you right away (someone, I guess, who is not checking e-mail only twice a day), you can choose from the menu bar “Tools,” “Send/Receive,” and then “Send All” (NOT “Send/Recieve all”). This way your e-mails are only going out and nothing coming in.

    I don’t know if I can do only two checks a day, but I certainly could cut back significantly. Good luck, Mike.

  • http://joshuabryant.com Joshua

    Mike,

    Completely agree and I would definitely still consider two times a day responsive, especially in the position you are in. I think what really conveys the responsiveness on your end as well is that a) you have an immediate auto reply and b) you are consistent with what time you’ll get back to people. I think the black hole mentality sets in when you email people and sometimes you get replies instantly and sometimes it takes days.

    I also agree with you on the diner thing, it’s amazing how some people equate being responsive with being rude. It definitely doesn’t have to be.

    Keep us updated on your experiment though, I know we’d all love to hear how it ends up!

  • http://www.businesssanityblog.com Susan Martin

    Interesting discussion here! I understand both the need to be responsive and the need to get things done, but…

    I question the need for being “super” responsive. My belief is that you don’t have to take every call, or answer every email or message as its happening. What’s important is that you get back to people when you say you will.

    Is it possible that our expectations regarding responsiveness are too high? Must we be available to everyone 24/7? Interrupt conversations or meetings to take calls or answer emails? Deny ourselves the time to do the work, or even just think?

    Must we behave as if we work in the ER?

    In my coaching practice I see far too many business owners and executives who allow themselves to be constantly interrupted by emails, cell phone calls, etc. who struggle to manage their time, stay focused, be productive and manage their stress levels. And for some, these behaviors ultimately lead to burn-out.

    Most or these challenges are solved simply by setting some limits.

    I agree with Mike; if interruptions are interfering with productivity, or stressing you out; it’s up to each of us to set boundaries and the standard for other’s expectations.

  • http://www.colleencoble.com Colleen Coble

    Say it isn’t so! I cannot function without email. yes, I might get more done, but what a sacrifice! I like being quick to answer things from my editor, publisher and marketing manager. Would the world stop if I couldn’t? No maybe not, but it’s part of who I am.

    Some things are worth their addiction. LOL I’m betting with Gail and your secretary. But I might try setting up my email to check only every half an hour instead of constant. Only twice a day is too extreme. That’s like quitting smoking cold turkey. LOL

  • http://www.colleencoble.com Colleen Coble

    I found an interesting article on Good Morning America this morning about email.

    http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=3287154&page=1

    It’s about how people just get overwhelmed with email and stop doing it at all.

  • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

    Colleen,

    The ABC News article was very interesting. I had never heard the term “e-mail bancruptcy.” I can see why people feel they have no alternative!

    Mike

  • Anonymous

    Mike,

    Great post as usual. I’m going to try this out when I get back in the office next week, though I’ll probably have to switch to 3x per day due to a European office that we support. I’m going to create an Outlook rule to flag European office e-mails, so these will be the only messages that I check first thing in the morning. As a result, I’ll be able to provide Europe a same-day response because of the 7-hour time difference.

    Thanks,
    Steve

  • Andrea

    I’m trying to do the same as you, Michael.
    Just one more question.
    When you process your email twice a day, do you still use the 2-minutes-rule and move emails that need a longer response to a subfolder?
    Thanks,
    Andrew

  • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

    Andrew,

    Yes, I am still using the two-minute rule. However, I am finding that I am not spending more than an hour a day on e-mail. By “batching” my e-mail work in two sessions, I am finding that I can really blow through my inbox. I have gone home every day with an empty inbox, and that feels GREAT!

    Mike

  • http://kevinmeath.com Kevin Meath

    40 minutes. That’s the magic number for me. Set your email so it only looks for new messages every 40 minutes. (Perversely, some email servers remove this option, although your stand-alone Outlook at home allows it.) When the messages arrive, scan them and then only deal with those that involve emergencies or a few key people. If you get back to someone in 45 minutes, that’s plenty good enough in nearly every situation, while giving you a good block of time in which to focus.

  • http://leeaase.wordpress.com/2007/08/18/facebook-and-the-4-hour-workweek/ PR, New Media, GTD – Lines from Lee

    Facebook and The 4-HourWorkweek

    I reviewed Merlin Manns Inbox Zero talk at Google in this previous post, and suggested that Facebook could help create a new class of messaging, in keeping with the recommendations in The 4-Hour Workweek, that makes less-frequent checking of em…

  • Kristin

    I appreciate the intent of this discussion which is to live responsibly with technology in a 24/7 world. However, for some of us, our work IS our email. My team and I serve 300 students who live around the country (and a handful scattered around the world). These people are doing masters-level coursework in an online environment. Even the adjunct faculty who teach courses can be removed by distance (I have one church history adjunct who lives in Germany). Email for me isn’t necessarily an interruption. It simply is the work I do to advise students, coach faculty, communicate with my team, and lead the program.

    That said, in the online educational world, there’s a presumption that faculty will be available 24/7. I don’t think that’s wise at all. I’m convinced we need to manage expectations for people, and create boundaries around our uses of technology. I do well to leave my computer closed most of my evenings, and one day on the weekend. I consider these “technology sabbaths.”

    It is true that we can be driven by technology. Phones changed how we live and work — voicemail even more so and faxes more still. Computer technologies with email, blogs, and instant messages (not to mention cell phone technology) all come with invitations to manage our lives well. For some, email twice a day is the solution. For others, pausing from email twice a day might be the right way to manage the technology.

    In the end, my perspective is that we do indeed need to be discerning about our use of technology. The “twice a day” principle, however, may not be the model that serves some of us best. It may be the luxury of leadership who have others navigating the details of their work lives and correspondence. Similarly, delaying email arrival (40 min) and limiting length of response (2 minute) may actually prevent some of us (even we who are leading in high-tech arenas) from the doing the work we need to do and serving those we’ve been called to serve.

  • http://ideamatt.blogspot.com/ Matthew Cornell

    I agree – some good stuff in the book. It passed my “scribble test” with flying colors :-)

    FYI here’s a little 4-hour workweek experiment I tried:

    The 4-hour workweek applied: How I spent $100, saved hours, and boosted my reading workflow
    http://ideamatt.blogspot.com/2007/08/4-hour-workweek-applied-how-i-spent-100.html

    I continue looking for other ways to apply the 80/20 principle, which was clearly a big influence on Tim Ferris (I’m reading Koch’s book now). I’d like to hear about other experiments you’ve tried.

  • http://www.maulco.com/blog Mathias Maul

    Michael,

    your post reminded me that I had this system in use for a couple of … uhm … days (until email ADD struck again). As I am more distracted by phone calls than by incoming emails, I am now trying an alternative method to the proposed auto-reply:

    I will change my voicemail message and ask callers to write e-mail if at all possible.

    In my experience, most callers just say “Hello, this is Jim, please call back” without leaving any information about the nature of their call. This is a HUGE time and motivation sink for me. All I need now is a firm, yet friendly way to ask callers to write e-mail if at all possible … with, of course, the option to leave a voice msg WITH CONTENT if they don’t have access to email.

    As voicemail messages are forwarded to my email account anyway, this won’t break my routine and – hopefully – ensure a smoother workflow. This is an experiment for me, and I’ll be blogging about the result(s) soon.

    Cheers,
    Mathias

  • http://www.karenjames.com Karen James

    You are the second person I have EVER heard announce they got their inbox to zero. The first? Max Lucado. I've been pondering how you wonderful "Type A, getrdone" type folks accomplish so much? (AND with Godly priorities and balance) My guess is to start with your recommended reading above. Though I know it's not how I'm naturally "wired", I desire to be the best of my potential. Somehow, I don't think you'd find a blog about a turtle in someone who authors a 4 Hour Work Week. Visit the website/blog section to see the short musing.

  • http://www.frestres.com/ AnnaHopn

    Greatings, michaelhyatt.com to GoogleReader!
    Have a nice day
    AnnaHopn

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  • monica

    Are you still following this rule of only checking twice daily? How often do you check other "inboxes" such as Twitter, blog comments, and facebook comments?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      It depends on the day. I do try to work offline and only check email and specific intervals. It probably averages four times a day. I include Twitter in my inbox sweep.

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  • Anonymous

    I can’t agree with this more. In the past few months, I’ve been actively working on my blog and just started Twitter; within a few days of starting all this I found myself obsessed with comments, conversations, etc. I started having trouble sleeping at night because my brain was so revved up. I took a fast from all technology this weekend while my family and I visited Vail, CO. I didn’t miss the computer. Now, I’m back on track with checking accounts on a sane basis, and I’m sleeping (even with an infant). I feel so much better about life, too. 

  • Joe Mieden

    I’ve started batching a couple weeks ago. I still check email and my social networks about 4-5 times a day right now, but productivity has soared. I have found that I am much more focused, creative and productive when I’m not always looking so see who just emailed me. Great post! Definitely going to pick up Ferris’ book. I’ve heard a lot about it, but haven’t perused it yet. 

  • http://jorgeledesma.net Jorge Ledesma

    this is such a tough concept but I’m going to give it a try, twice a day, thanks

  • Edi

    Did you really set your out-of-the-office message that big? O_o

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  • http://www.ericdingler.com/ Eric Dingler

    Just found this post in the show notes for your #034 podcast.  Curious, how’s it going?  

    I have adopted the idea of email three times per day. Twice for my day job emails and once for my personal emails. I think it’s unethical for me to check process personal email with a work email or on company time.  

    What works best for my work productivity flow is to batch process my email first thing at my desk int he morning.  I empty my inbox, no exceptions.  If an email requires my attention and I can’t accomplish the task in under 2 minutes I create a an event on my calendar.  I then use my calendar to create an A-1 list in Evernote.  I then process email again between 3 to 4 pm.  I batch process my personal email after my morning workout before going to work or in the evening…just depends on the day and my schedule.

    Again, curious how you are doing on this.  Still at twice per day?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Yes, it is still my goal. Some days I am better than others. ;-)

  • Jenhpd

     Your message is way too long.  You are wasting other people’s time.

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  • Alex P

    Hi Michael! I know this is an old post, but just wondering how long you kept up the process of the auto-responder notifying people of your email policy? Is this policy still the same for you? What was the response like to the large, long term auto-respond email? Thanks!!