How to Save 5 Hours and Take an Afternoon Off

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It was a regretful moment. Three days after it happened, I received an email. “Craig,” my friend David wrote,

why did we have that meeting if you were going to spend your time focused more on your email than participating in the discussion?

Ouch. How embarrassing. I had let my good habits slide off a slippery slope. The email monster had beaten me. Something had to change with my behavior. After apologizing, I immediately went to work on a plan to cut back on email. My new approach has worked brilliantly, allowing me to give my full attention during phone calls and meetings while at the same time tripling my daily writing output.

Today you’ll learn what I’ve done to tame the email monster. We’ll also overcome all of your objections to using this system (because I know that you’ll have some). Keep an open mind and you’ll save over an hour a day, enough to take an extra afternoon off or finish work an hour early each day.

Imagine being able to spend just ninety minutes, three days per week, checking your email. How much energy and focus would open up for you. That’s what you’ll do with these rules. They are rigid. They might cause other people stress, but they will leave you in complete control of your days and workweek.

My work email system operates like this: I check email on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday only. I’m in my inbox from approximately 12:30pm to 2pm. I can get through 101 messages in 60 minutes. I allow myself 90 minutes because that includes responding to Men’s Health magazine article requests. Most of the email I receive can be deleted in seconds.

It might not be easy for you at first. You will go through withdrawal. The problem is that right now you’re probably addicted to email. A study from the journal Personal and Ubiquitous Computing found smartphone users check email up to 34 times per day.

When you flip back and forth from real work to compulsive email checking, not only does it make you inefficient, eating up valuable time, but it also saps cognitive resources, say researchers Kostadin Kushlev and Elizabeth W. Dunn from the department of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

According to their study in Computers in Human Behavior the more frequently subjects checked their email, the more stress they had. Subjects that turned off email alerts, checked their email only three times per day, and kept their inboxes otherwise closed, had less stress (reducing it almost as much as if they had meditated). This group of subjects also spent 20% less time in email tasks each week, opening up nearly 8 hours of productivity. When it comes to checking email, the researchers concluded, less might be more.

If checking your email only 34 times per day seems low to you, or if you are simply stressed out by your inbox, then you have work to do. You have an addiction to overcome. And yes, it is an addiction. Here’s proof. Scientists report that each message notification releases a small amount of dopamine, a ‘reward-system’ neurotransmitter activated by recreational drugs. That’s why our email habit can become as strong as a cocaine or sugar addiction.

It’s time for you to detox, cut back on email, and spend less time with your phone. You need a system for survival. It’s time for you to go to rehab and you can only checkout when you’ve implemented these rules.

1) Have a cut-off time for checking your phone each night.

A recent survey (by Opinion Matters) found that six percent of email addicts checked their smartphone when their partner was in labor. Of the 500 people surveyed, more than three-quarters checked their email on weekends, and 59% checked email during vacations.

Six percent even had the gall to check email while at a funeral, and over 55% checked email after 11pm. Both are obvious no-no’s. The explanation for the latter. Research from Christopher M. Barnes and colleagues, to be published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, found that “late-night smartphone usage cut into sleep and made people tired in the morning, and that, as a result, they were less engaged at work the next day.

Your cut-off time should be a minimum of one hour before bed. Avoid all electronics during that hour so that you have a better night’s sleep.

2) Set strict time periods on when you will check email. 

Several years ago it became fashionable to program an email auto-reply declaring that you only checked email twice a day (for example, at 10am and 4pm). Those plans did not last long for most people. Not only were the auto-notifications annoying to the email sender, but our inbox addiction overcame our best-laid plans. We plan, people email, and God laughs.

Now is the time to take this method seriously. You don’t need to raise the auto-reply from the grave of good-ideas-gone-wrong, but you do need to set specific days and times when you will check email.

3) Set a limit for the amount of time spent in your inbox.

Not only should you check email less frequently, but you should spend less time with your inbox open. Batch the task, eliminate multi-tasking, and zip through it. You’ll be amazed how quickly you can get through dozens or even hundreds of emails when you have a ruthless system for replying, deleting, and filing.

4) Treat email like fax or regular mail. 

How many times do you check your physical mailbox in a day? Are you running out to it every hour? How much thought would you put into each outgoing communication if you had to walk over to a fax machine, dial a number, and run a piece of paper through it?

You’d send and receive a lot fewer messages in both instances, and you’d put more preparation into each one. You wouldn’t get caught up in useless communication chains. But you do with email because it is so easy to hit send. Stop.

5) Send fewer emails.

Before you send your next email, count to 10. Does it add to the conversation? Are you sending in haste, or worse, when emotional? Would you want this email response to show up in a court of law? How many times have we seen high-ranking officials stung by an email they sent on a sensitive matter? How many times has someone replied to all and been burned? Too many, or at least certainly enough to warrant an audit of every email you send out. The upside of sending fewer emails is that you’ll get fewer in return.

One of my mentors, Dan Kennedy, has been in the direct marketing business for over 40 years, recently turned 60, earns over $2 million per year writing copy, and writes almost a dozen print newsletters per month. He does not, has not, and will not ever have an email address. He does not even use the Internet nor does he have a cellphone. His is an extreme example of how well you can control your life when you are the boss.

Of course, that’s the biggest objection to all of the recommendations. You might not be the boss (yet). You have to be on alert for your boss’s latest whims, your colleague’s project updates, your spouse’s requests to pick up milk on the way home from work, and your friend’s latest update on social media.

No, no, no, no. If that’s your mindset, you’ve got it all wrong. You are letting the non-essential creep into the essential. You are excusing your addiction. Here’s the truth. Your Inbox is Your Responsibility. Not every email requires you to say thank you, or to acknowledge that you received it. Cut back, get less, and achieve more. Be the boss.

6) Make people contact you in a different way.

Emergencies are for telephone only. Have your colleagues get up and walk over to talk to you at your desk (it’s good for their health anyways). Use a system like Idonethis.com, Google Docs or Basecamp to communicate with colleagues on projects. Get rid of your email dependency.

7) Set up your email to file communication into different folders.

Every email system allows you to automatically flag and file emails from specific senders or based on the content. Learn how to use these so that your inbox is not a nightmare when you open it on this new schedule. This also helps you identify areas of weakness, email abusers (people that send too many emails), and content you no longer need, bringing us to the next big tip.

8) Unsubscribe from almost all of your email newsletters. 

Limit yourself to five email newsletter subscriptions and have these go to a separate, non-email work account. Email accounts are free. Don’t hesitate to spread out your inbox load, and then designate one hour per week to checking this folder. Stick to a hard cut-off time. What you don’t get through can wait.

9) Use 4 Letters to Say So Much: NNTR

Educate your colleagues, family, and friends on what NNTR means: No Need To Reply. When you send someone instructions or when you respond to their queries save them and yourself time by adding this at the end. If there is no need to reply, tell them that. It will cut down on your email volume.

Yes, some people will take offense at this, but they are offending you with every useless email they send that steals time from your career, your family, and your time off. Cut back or cut them off before they cut you up.

You might not be the boss of your business, but you can be the boss of your life. And if you want to be the boss of the business one day, it won’t hurt to get control of your schedule and to increase your productivity right now. “A day filled with shooting the breeze with colleagues,” time management expert Scott Scheper says, “answering questions, staring at emails, checking social networks and chatting with colleagues won’t make you rich. It’ll make you busy.

Would you rather get ahead or get buried by email? Would you rather have more time for your children at home or do you just want another hit from the email bong? Make the right decisions, right now, for your right life. Man-up and create the rules for communicating with you. These rules are harsh, but fair. You can either make excuses on why they won’t work (and defend your addiction) or you can put them to work for you, getting clean and sober from your draining email addiction, and start to make big progress in your life.

You might suffer from three stages of withdrawal with this new plan. First, you’ll struggle to stop checking email frequently and daily. Start by keeping Sunday mornings and afternoons email free. Then add all-day Saturday. Next, tackle a weekday. Don’t read any non-emergency emails. Add a second weekday. Finally, commit to checking all of your email in just 90 minutes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Second, you’ll struggle not to reply to everything. Use the count-to-ten rule. Limit yourself to replying to no more than 10 emails per session. Experiment to see what helps you cut back.

Third, you’ll eventually get to the point where you feel sad about how little email you get! That’s when you know you have won, and that you have the right habits in place for you to focus on bigger and better things that will bring you more than just a small hit of dopamine. Finishing big projects ahead of time, earning praise from your boss, getting a raise, receiving that promotion, and having more time to spend with your family, those are the rewards you should be getting a ‘fix’ of more often, not email from strangers.

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