"Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have,
and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful
lest you let other people spend it for you."
In my experience, email is the most insidious, seductive time-waster we face.
In fact, for many of us, email is a pernicious addiction.
Checking and replying to our electronically-delivered messages seems like a necessary, innocuous occupation, but it is also a major form of procrastination.
Sometimes we open our email browser with the intention of sending someone a specific message. Often, though, we are checking our email because, well, that is what we do. We check our inbox many times a day, even compulsively.
When I am giving workshops to faculty or graduate students, I take a poll of how frequently participants check their email. Everyone seems to check their email several times, and the majority of academics admit to more than a dozen incursions per day.
How much would you weigh if you ate a piece of chocolate every time you check your email? Would obesity - or even diabetes - be the result?
Here are seven specific tips for dealing with an email addiction:
1) Stop checking your email first thing in the morning.
For many of us, this is the most difficult – and most important – habit to break. “First things first” should be the guiding principle of your academic day. Work on your own research and writing for at least a half hour before opening your email program. Take the pragmatic and symbolic step of focusing on your academic priorities before responding to external input. If you make this a habit, I promise that you will be surprised and pleased with how much more you accomplish each day.
2) Turn off any “you’ve got mail” sounds or verbal cues.
It is important to prevent the tempting distraction of automatic notifications of new messages. We often respond to these signals like a dog conditioned to salivate at the sound of the bell: the familiar sound leads to an automatic email check. Don’t let external signals control your behavior. You should choose when it is time to look at your messages.
3) Close your email program between sessions.
If you check your email reflexively and automatically it will help to make the habit more difficult to begin. When you decide to send a message, it will take longer to open the program and enter a password, but this delay will give you a chance to ask yourself whether it is necessary to go online at that particular moment. You will consciously decide whether or not to have an email session.
3) Monitor your addiction.
How often do you check your email? Is your habit severe? For a few days, try counting how many times you open your email. Do you take a quick peek dozens of times each workday? Is this the best use of your time? Probably not.
4) Decide on a reasonable number of times per day to check your messages.
Next choose specific times of the day to open your inbox. At first, you may want to write those times in your daily planner until infrequent checks become a habit. Remind yourself that even when you are waiting for an important message, such as a response to a research question, or notification of a grant award, it rarely matters whether you read the message immediately or an hour later. For most academics, three email sessions per day should be sufficient. Does this sound draconian or depriving? Then you are probably an email addict. You may want to keep checking your email on an hourly basis – but at least make it a conscious choice.
5) Cut back slowly. Are you accustomed to letting your own work become sidetracked by every message that arrives? Try cutting back to a quick check every hour, then slowly reduce the frequency and length of your email sessions. Watch to see whether you get more of your own work accomplished.
Are you finding yourself resistant to the measures I’ve suggested? You may want to ask yourself why it is so difficult to cut back or why you don’t want to give up the habit. Is email checking the only way you permit yourself to take a break? Can you think of a more relaxing or rewarding small break from work?
The basic premise of these suggestions is that our email addictions preempt conscious time management choices.
DECIDE THAT YOU ARE IN CHARGE OF YOUR EMAIL, NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND.
Do you remember life before email? We still got work done, right?
P.S. I think that email management is so important that I will devote further Monday Motivators to the topic.