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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.

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5min read
Lifestyle

Unconventional Parenting: Why We Let Our Children Curse

"Sh*t!" my daughter exclaimed as she dropped her iPad to the floor. A little bit of context; my daughter Victoria absolutely loves her iPad. And as I watched her bemoan the possible destruction of her favorite device, I thought to myself, "If I were in her position, I'd probably say the exact same thing."


In the Rastegar family, a word is only a bad word if used improperly. This is a concept that has almost become a family motto. Because in our household, we do things a little differently. To put it frankly, our practices are a little unconventional. Completely safe, one hundred percent responsible- but sure, a little unconventional.

And that's because my husband Ari and I have always felt akin in one major life philosophy; we want to live our lives our way. We have dedicated ourselves to a lifetime of questioning the world around us. And it's that philosophy that has led us to some unbelievable discoveries, especially when it comes to parenting.

Ari was an English major. And if there's one thing that can be said about English majors, it's that they can be big-time sticklers for the rules. But Ari also thinks outside of the box. And here's where these two characteristics meet. Ari was always allowed to curse as a child, but only if the word fit an appropriate and relevant context. This idea came from Ari's father (his mother would have never taken to this concept), and I think this strange practice really molded him into the person he is today.

But it wasn't long after we met that I discovered this fun piece of Ari Rastegar history, and I got to drop a pretty awesome truth bomb on Ari. My parents let me do the same exact thing…

Not only was I allowed to curse as a child, but I was also given a fair amount of freedom to do as I wanted. And the results of this may surprise you. You see, despite the lack of heavy regulating and disciplining from my parents, I was the model child. Straight A's, always came home for curfew, really never got into any significant trouble- that was me. Not trying to toot my own horn here, but it's important for the argument. And don't get the wrong impression, it's not like I walked around cursing like a sailor.

Perhaps I was allowed to curse whenever I wanted, but that didn't mean I did.

And this is where we get to the amazing power of this parenting philosophy. In my experience, by allowing my own children to curse, I have found that their ability to self-regulate has developed in an outstanding fashion. Over the past few years, Victoria and Kingston have built an unbelievable amount of discipline. And that's because our decision to allow them to curse does not come without significant ground rules. Cursing must occur under a precise and suitable context, it must be done around appropriate company, and the privilege cannot be overused. By following these guidelines, Victoria and Kingston are cultivating an understanding of moderation, and at a very early age are building a social awareness about when and where certain types of language are appropriate. And ultimately, Victoria and Kingston are displaying the same phenomenon present during my childhood. Their actual instances of cursing are extremely low.

And beneath this parenting strategy is a deeper philosophy. Ari and I first and foremost look at parenting as educators. It is not our job to dictate who our children will be, how they shall behave, and what their future should look like.

We are not dictators; we are not imposing our will on them. They are autonomous beings. Their future is in their hands, and theirs alone.

Rather, we view it as our mission to show our children what the many possibilities of the world are and prepare them for the litany of experiences and challenges they will face as they develop into adulthood. Now, when Victoria and Kingston come across any roadblocks, they have not only the tools but the confidence to handle these tensions with pride, independence, and knowledge.

And we have found that cursing is an amazing place to begin this relationship as educators. By allowing our children to curse, and gently guiding them towards the appropriate use of this privilege, we are setting a groundwork of communication that will eventually pay dividends as our children grow curious of less benign temptations; sex, drugs, alcohol. There is no fear, no need to slink behind our backs, but rather an open door where any and all communication is rewarded with gentle attention and helpful wisdom.

The home is a sacred place, and honesty and communication must be its foundation. Children often lack an ability to communicate their exact feelings. Whether out of discomfort, fear, or the emotional messiness of adolescence, children can often be less than transparent. Building a place of refuge where our children feel safe enough to disclose their innermost feelings and troubles is, therefore, an utmost priority in shepherding their future. Ari and I have come across instances where our children may have been less than truthful with a teacher, or authority figure simply because they did not feel comfortable disclosing what was really going on. But with us, they know that honesty is not only appreciated but rewarded and incentivized. This allows us to protect them at every turn, guard them against destructive situations, and help guide and problem solve, fully equipped with the facts of their situation.

And as crazy as it all sounds- I really believe in my heart that the catalogue of positive outcomes described above truly does stem from our decision to allow Victoria and Kingston to curse freely.

I know this won't sit well with every parent out there. And like so many things in life, I don't advocate this approach for all situations. In our context, this decision has more than paid itself off. In another, it may exacerbate pre-existing challenges and prove to be only a detriment to your own family's goals.

As the leader of your household, this is something that you and you alone must decide upon with intentionality and wisdom.

Ultimately, Ari and I want to be the kind of people our children genuinely want to be around. Were we not their parents, I would hope that Victoria and Kingston would organically find us interesting, warm, kind, funny, all the things we aspire to be for them each and every day.

We've let our children fly free, and fly they have. They are amazing people. One day, when they leave the confines of our home, they will become amazing adults. And hopefully, some of the little life lessons and eccentric parenting practices we imparted upon them will serve as a support for their future happiness and success.