How to stop using email to procrastinate

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Hands up if you spend too much time on your email. This pseudo-work is not helping you and may be exactly what’s preventing you from achieving your writing goals… 

Have you ever emailed me? If so, you likely received a reply in less than 24 hours. Yet I refuse to let email rule my life.

I see email as a wonderfully improbable tool that allows me to communicate quickly and easily in the flash of an eye (a microsecond, to quote a fine book I just finished reading, The Flash Boys by Michael Lewis).

Still, the writing of emails is an insidious task that could easily gobble up hours out of every day. Think about it: Many of us get as many as 200 emails a day (not including spam.) If I spent an average of 30 seconds apiece reading and answering most of them and 15 minutes each on the five trickiest and most important I’d be devoting more than 172 minutes or close to three hours per day on email. On email. (Shockingly, that works out to 745 hours per year. On email.)

And here’s the really pernicious thing: it feels like real work. It takes thought. Concentration. Even, frequently, tact. While a couple of hours of processing email isn’t as physically taxing as moving bricks, it’s not exactly a dinner at a fine restaurant. Instead, it’s a bit like the task facing any parent: feeding and cleaning children. You work over the stove producing meals they’ll eat with a minimum of whining and food-throwing, you give them a bath and put them to bed and guess what? You have to do exactly the same thing all over again the next day.

Here are my suggestions for stopping email from becoming your # 1 writing procrastination tool:

  • Ration your time on it. I love using timers. I write in pomodoros and I have a digital clock going whenever I’m working for a client. Time to me is way more important than money because I know that once it’s gone I’ll never get it back. Have you ever noticed how much more efficient you become when preparing to go on holiday? Or how university students typically leave their essays until the night before they’re due? This is because most of us thrive on a shortage of time because it forces us to eliminate everything that’s extraneous. So put your email on a diet. I suggest you limit it to no more than one hour per business day. (Note: That’s still 260 hours per year.)
  • Touch your email only once. Once you’ve opened an email, make it a rule that you have to answer it immediately. This advice comes from David Allen and many other organizational gurus. Enforcing this rule will encourage you to do something else that will boost your productivity: You’ll turn off your email notifications (the lights, sounds and numbers aimed at distracting you) and collect email manually, on your own schedule. Even if you have a job that requires monitoring email, be aware that most people don’t expect answers within minutes. Could you not collect your email once an hour? After all, that’s eight times daily! And if a truly rapid response is required, instruct those people to text you instead.
  • Use software to make your email use more efficient. I’ve had my server company turn up the settings on spam so that much of it is cut off at the gate. (Yes, there’s a small chance that I’m missing the occasional genuine email as a result but I’m willing to take that risk to avoid the daily aggravation of buckets of spam.) Here’s another software tool I like: Text Expander, which allows me to set “code words” for much larger blocks of type for emails I send regularly. For example, whenever anyone buys my book or my Extreme Writing Makeover course, they receive an email. I send it out manually, but it takes me less than three seconds to enter the code resulting in a 140-word email, which I personalize by adding the buyer’s name.
  • Shorten it. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that long emails take longer to write. It takes more time to think through what you’re going to say. It takes more time to type them. It takes more time to proofread them. There’s an app called 5 sentences that works to encourage people to keep their emails to exactly that length. While I appreciate the sentiment, I don’t want to have to concentrate so hard on reaching an arbitrary goal. I simply try to keep my emails as short as possible. When I’m trying to track down my students who haven’t yet submitted their daily writing accomplishment to meI’ve taken to putting my entire message in the subject line. “Writing goal for Tuesday?” is how such a message might read today. (If you want to be a stickler, you can add EOM, short for “end of message” to any subject-line-only messages.)
  • Do it later in the day. Never do your email first thing in the morning. First morning time is sacred. It should be reserved for only those tasks most important and most valuable to you. My greatest hits list includes: writing, exercise, meditation and, not infrequently, my most loathed projects (because eating your frogs first thing is always a really good idea.)

Life is too short to spend the best part of it on email. But it’s especially too short to spend deluding yourself. Email is pseudo-writing, making you feel busy and accomplished when, in fact, you’re using it to procrastinate from the real writing already awaiting your hands and brain. 

How do you wrestle your email into submission? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section of my blog. And, congratulations to Chris Blue, the winner of this month’s book prize, Weinberg on Writingby Gerald Weinberg for his/her Feb. 3 comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post  (or any others) by March 31/15 will be put in a draw for a copy of the beach-read novel The Vacationers, by Emma Straub. Please, scroll down to the comments section, directly underneath the “more from my site” links, below.

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