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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.

3 min read
Lifestyle

Help! My Friend Is a No Show

Email armchairpsychologist@swaaymedia.com to get the advice you need!

Help! My Friend Is a No Show

Dear Armchair Psychologist,

I have a friend who doesn't reply to my messages about meeting for dinner, etc. Although, last week I ran into her at a local restaurant of mine, it has always been awkward to be friends with her. Should I continue our friendship or discontinue it? We've been friends for a total four years and nothing has changed. I don't feel as comfortable with her as my other close friends, and I don't think I'll ever be able to reach that comfort zone in pure friendship.

-Sadsies

Dear Sadsies,

I am sorry to hear you've been neglected by your friend. You may already have the answer to your question, since you're evaluating the non-existing bond between yourself and your friend. However, I'll gladly affirm to you that a friendship that isn't reciprocated is not a good friendship.



I have had a similar situation with a friend whom I'd grown up with but who was also consistently a very negative person, a true Debby Downer. One day, I just had enough of her criticism and vitriol. I stopped making excuses for her and dumped her. It was a great decision and I haven't looked back. With that in mind, it could be possible that something has changed in your friend's life, but it's insignificant if she isn't responding to you. It's time to dump her and spend your energy where it's appreciated. Don't dwell on this friend. History is not enough to create a lasting bond, it only means just that—you and your friend have history—so let her be history!



- The Armchair Psychologist

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