#SWAAYthenarrative

The Curse of Inbox Zero: How I Learned to Manage My Time, Not Just My Inbox

6min read
Career

"Are you okay?"


This is the first thing my friend said when I picked up the phone last year. I was confused. Why would she think I wasn't all right? Had I posted something on social media that implied I was sick or in trouble? "Why do you ask?" I said to her.

"Because I sent you an email an hour ago and you didn't answer," she responded. "You usually get back immediately."

This was one of the earliest and clearest warning signs that I had a serious problem. Inbox zero was a daily goal in my life at that point and I was remarkably good at achieving it. But after that phone call with my friend, I wondered if "she answered all her email within two hours" was really how I wanted my obituary to start.

I decided to carefully track my activities for three weeks and figure out exactly how much time I was spending on email and social media. I discovered that I spent about two-and-a-half-hours on email every day and nearly two hours on social media. On a weekly basis, I spent about three-and-a-half hours shopping or browsing online.

I sleep between 10pm and 6am, which means I'm awake for 16 hours and most of that time is used getting showered and dressed and driving places and eating and going to meetings and all of the other stuff I have to accomplish in a day's time. Did I really want to spend my few precious remaining minutes looking at looking at shoes or skimming articles about Game of Thrones (which I've never watched)? Did I want to spend my time constantly checking my inbox?

It was clear I needed to break my addiction to checking my email and my Twitter feed. That's when I decided to create an Untouchable Day. Every Monday, I don't check social media or email and texts. I pick up the phone when someone calls, but in the modern age, people seem to avoid phone calls like Ebola, so my phone is pretty quiet.

My Mondays are slow and quiet and extremely productive. As it turns out, the tool I thought was saving me time and making me more efficient – email – was doing the opposite.

It was quite difficult to grow accustomed to the practice of Untouchability, at first. That first Monday, I checked my email on my phone or my computer more than a dozen times. I was constantly tempted to "check Instagram really quickly" or go to my inbox to "just sort through my messages." I told myself all kinds of lies in order to justify feeding my addiction. Clicking on that envelope icon was more than a habit, it was a reflex. The truth is, my life was centered around email in more ways than I realized.

The research on email use varies, but generally, most adults spend between two and six hours a day answering email. Studies show that at least a third of that isn't urgent, but I'm willing to bet a much higher percentage of those messages are neither time sensitive nor even necessary. The ease of email leads people to shoot off questions they could probably answer themselves. It tempts people to cc more people than really necessary and to commit that most awful of email crimes: hit "reply all."

I could cite studies and surveys all day, but the body of research over twenty years can be boiled down to one important takeaway: email kills productivity, but most of us are addicted to it.

In order to make the Untouchable Day work, I needed to make some significant changes. I had already turned off most of the notifications on my smartphone, excepting only apps like my calendar and my GPS. I realized, though, that it was very stressful to see the number beside my inbox go up as the number of unread emails increased. I turned that feature off. I also changed the settings so that my email page didn't open every time I launched my browser.

Monday morning, I set my phone to Do Not Disturb mode, allowing only phone calls to come through. I use the internet as little as possible and even bought a distraction-free keyboard that saves my documents to the cloud but doesn't allow me to connect to the internet. Last week, I wrote 4300 words in two days with that keyboard. Focus is a powerful thing.

Another necessary adjustment related directly to that phone call from my friend: I had to somehow manage others' expectations. My friends and colleagues had been trained (by me) to expect a very quick response. It's possible many of us have unknowingly caused stress by fostering this expectation.

Most texts are read within 3 minutes of being received and a response is generally sent within 90 seconds after the message is read. It turns out my friend was generous in waiting an hour before becoming concerned about my health because it turns out the average email response time is two minutes, according to analysis from the University of Southern California's Viterbi School of Engineering.

I solved the problem of expectation using the Vacation Responder. On Sunday nights, I check my email one last time and write an automatic response that says, "On Mondays, I don't answer emails or texts. If it's truly urgent, call me." In more than a year's worth of Untouchable Days, I've yet to get an urgent call, which probably means the people in my life have found a way to solve their issues on their own or that they decided those issues could wait.

Even when I'm not in the midst of an Untouchable Day, I still try to manage email expectations. I am zealous about labeling things as spam so they never make it to my inbox. What's more, my emails now all end with the follow sentences: "I only check email 2-3 times a day. If it's urgent, call me. But really, how urgent is it, really?" I have created a new habit of checking email only once an hour and I want people to get used to the idea that I may not respond immediately or at all. Ironically, I reach inbox zero often now, despite spending less time with email, because I receive noticeably fewer communications.

More importantly, unplugging and disconnecting has become easier over the past year, and not just on Mondays. Forcing myself to take a regular break from the internet has made me more willing to go without social media and texting throughout the week. I take walks with my dog and leave the phone at home, or I'll turn it off completely during meals. FOMO, fear of missing out, has been eradicated after weeks and weeks of reminders that I wasn't really missing anything at all.

Yesterday, I stopped by my neighbor's house to drop off a small gift and ended up staying for dinner. Hours later, I returned home to realize that my phone had been sitting on the kitchen counter the whole time. Untouchable had become, for a short time, unreachable and the feeling was sweet.

5 Min Read
People

Judge Tanya Acker On Overcoming Racial Barriers And Her Rise To The Top


You may recognize Judge, Tanya Acker, from her political and legal commentary on different networks and shows like Good Morning America, The Talk, Wendy Williams, CNN Reports or The Insider. Acker is more than an experienced commentator. She is also a Judge on the fifth season of Emmy nominated CBS show, Hot Bench.

The show, created by Judge Judy, is a new take on the court genre. Alongside Acker, are two other judges: Patricia DiMango and Michael Corriero. Together the three-panel judges take viewers inside the courtroom and into their chambers. “I feel like my responsibility on the show is, to be honest, fair, [and] to try and give people a just and equitable result," Acker says. She is accomplished, honest and especially passionate about her career. In fact, Acker likes the fact that she is able to help people solve problems. “I think that efficient ways of solving disputes are really at the core of modern life.

“We are a very diverse community [with] different values, backgrounds [and] beliefs. It's inevitable that we're going to find ourselves in some conflicts. I enjoy being a part of a process where you can help resolve the conflicts and diffuse them," she explains.

Acker's career has been built around key moments and professional experiences in her life. Particularly, her time working right after college impacted the type of legal work she takes on now.

Shaping Her Career

Acker didn't foresee doing this kind of work on television when she was in college at either Howard University or Yale Law. “I was really open in college about what would happen next," Acker comments. “In fact, I deliberately chose a major (English) that wouldn't lock me into anything [because] I wanted to keep all of my options open." Her inevitable success on the show and throughout her career is an example of that. In fact, after graduating from Yale, Acker served as a judicial law clerk to Judge Dorothy Nelson who sits on the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

It was not only her first job out of law school but also one of the formative experiences of her professional life. “[Judge Nelson is] certainly, if not my most important professional influence," Acker says. “She is really the living embodiment of justice, fairness, and believes in being faithful to the letter and the spirit of the law," she exclaims. “She delivers it all with a lot of love." Judge Nelson is still on the bench and is continuing to work through her Foundation: The Western Justice Center in Pasadena, California, where Acker serves on the board. The foundation helps people seeking alternative ways of resolving their disputes instead of going to court.

"I enjoy being a part of a process where you can help resolve the conflicts and diffuse them," she explains.

“It was important to her to try and create platforms for people to resolve conflict outside of court because court takes a long time," Acker explains. “I'm proud to be a part of that work and to sit on that board."

After her clerkship, she was awarded a Bristow Fellowship and continued building her career. Outside of the fellowship, Acker's legal work incorporated a broad variety of matters from civil litigation, constitutional cases, business counseling, and advising. One of her most memorable moments was representing a group of homeless people against the city. “They were being fought for vagrancy and our defense was, they had no place to go," she shares.

As part of her pro bono work, Acker was awarded the ACLU's First Amendment Award for her success with the case. Though, she has a hard time choosing from one of many memorable moments on Hot Bench. Acker does share a few of the things that matter to her. “Our show is really drawn from a cross-section of courtrooms across America and the chance to engage with such a diverse group of people really means a lot to me," she discusses.

How Did Acker Become A Judge?

In addition to Judge Nelson, Judge Judy is certainly among her top professional influences. “I think it's incredible [and] I feel very lucky that my professional career has been bookended by these incredible judges," she acclaims. “I've really learned a lot from Judy about this job, doing this kind of job on television." Before Acker was selected for Hot Bench, she hadn't been a judge. It was Judge Judy who recommended that she get some experience. Acker briefly comments on her first experience as a temporary judge on a volunteer basis in traffic court. “I was happy to be able to have the chance to kind of get a feel for it before we started doing the show," she comments. “Judy is a wonderful, kind, generous person [and] she's taught me quite a lot. I feel lucky."

Judge Acker in white pantsuit with her dog. Photo Courtesy of Annie Shak.

Acker's Time Away From Home

Outside of Hot Bench, Acker took recent trips to Haiti and Alabama. They were memorable and meaningful.

Haiti, in particular, was the first trip she excitedly talks about. She did some work there in an orphanage as part of LOVE Takes Root, an organization that is driven to help children around the world whether it's basic aid or education. “Haiti has a special place in my heart," she began. “As a person who's descended from enslaved people, I have a lot of honor and reverence for a country that threw off the shackles of slavery."

She was intrigued by the history of Haiti. Especially regarding the communities, corrupt government and natural disasters. “They really had to endure a lot, but I tell you this when I was there, I saw people who were more elegant, dignified, gracious and generous as any group of people I've ever met anywhere in the world," she goes on. “I think it left me with was a strong sense of how you can be graceful and elegant under fire." Acker is optimistic about the country's overall growth and success.

“[Judge Nelson is] certainly, if not my most important professional influence," Acker says. “She is really the living embodiment of justice, fairness, and believes in being faithful to the letter and the spirit of the law."

“There are certainly times when people treated me differently or made assumptions about me because I was a black woman," Acker says. “I've got it much better, but that doesn't mean it's perfect...it certainly isn't, but you just have to keep it moving."

Her other trip was different in more ways than one. She traveled there for the first time with her mother as part of a get out to vote effort, that Alabama's First black House Minority Leader, Anthony Daniels was organizing. “It was incredible to take that trip with her [and] I've got to tell you, the South of today is not the South of my mother's upbringing," she explains. Originally from Mississippi, Acker's mother hasn't been back in the South since 1952. “Every place has a ways to go, but it was a really exciting trip [and] it was nice for me to connect with that part of the country and that part of my history."

Overcoming Racial Barriers

As a black woman, Acker has certainly faced challenges based on her race and gender. But it doesn't define who she is or what she can accomplish. “There are certainly times when people treated me differently or made assumptions about me because I was a black woman," she says. “There's no sort of barrier that someone would attempt to impose upon me that they didn't attempt to impose on my mother, grandmother or great-grandmother." In a space where disparity is sometimes apparent, she recognizes that there is no barrier someone would try to impose on her that they didn't attempt to impose on her mother or grandmothers. “I've got it much better, but that doesn't mean it's perfect...it certainly isn't, but you just have to keep it moving," Acker states. The conversation continues truthfully and seriously. Acker shares what it can be like for black women, specifically. “I think we're underestimated and we can be disrespected, whereas other folks are allowed the freedom to enjoy a full range of emotions and feelings," she articulates.

At times black women are often restricted from expressing themselves. “If someone wants to make an assumption or jump to a conclusion about me because of my race or gender, that's on them, but their assumptions aren't going to define me," Acker declares. “If something makes me angry or happy I will express that and if someone wants to caricature me, that's their pigeonholing; that's not my problem." A lifelong lesson she learned and shared is to not let other people define who you are. It is one of three bits of wisdom.

Three Pieces Of Advice From Judge Acker

The Power Of Self-awareness

“It's really important that you have a really firm sense of what you want to do and be, and how you're moving in the world because when people try to sway you, judge you or steer you off course you've got to have some basis for getting back on track."

Know Your Support System

“Have a strong community of people who you trust, love and who love you," she advises. “But also learn to love and trust yourself because sometimes it's your own voice that can provide you the most comfort or solace in something."

Learn From Your Experiences

“Trust yourself. Take care of yourself. Don't be too hard on yourself. Be honest with yourself.

“There are times when it's not enough to say this is who I am. Take it or leave it. Sometimes we've got things that we need to work on, change or improve upon," she concludes.

Acker stands out not only because of her accomplishments, but the way she views certain aspects of her life. These days, she's comfortable accepting what makes her different. “I think there's a time when you're younger when conformity feels comfortable, [but] I'm comfortable these days not conforming," she laughs. She enjoys being a decision maker and helping people work through it on Hot Bench.

This article was originally published May 15, 2019.