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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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4min read
Business

How Postpartum Mesh Underwear Started My Entrepreneurial Journey

"Steal the mesh underwear you get from the hospital," a friend said upon learning I was pregnant with my first daughter.


It was the single best piece of advice I received before giving birth in December 2013. My best friend delivered her daughter eight months previously, and she was the first to pass along this shared code among new moms: you'll need mesh underwear for your at-home postpartum recovery, and you can't find them anywhere for purchase. End result: steal them. And tell your friends.

My delivery and subsequent recovery were not easy. To my unexpected surprise, after almost 24 hours of labor, I had an emergency C-section. Thankfully, my daughter was healthy; however, my recovery was quite a journey. The shock to my system caused my bloated and swollen body to need weeks of recovery time. Luckily, I had trusted my friend and followed her instructions: I had stolen some mesh underwear from the hospital to bring home with me.

Unfortunately, I needed those disposable underwear for much longer than I anticipated and quickly ran out. As I still wasn't quite mobile, my mother went to the store to find more underwear for me. Unfortunately, she couldn't find them anywhere and ended up buying me oversized granny panties. Sure, they were big enough, but I had to cut the waistband for comfort.

I eventually recovered from my C-section, survived those first few sleepless months, and returned to work. At the time, I was working for a Fortune 100 company and happily contributing to the corporate world. But becoming a new mom brought with it an internal struggle and search for something “more" out of my life--a desire to have a bigger impact. A flashback to my friend's golden piece of advice got me thinking: Why aren't mesh underwear readily available for women in recovery? What if I could make the magical mesh underwear available to new moms everywhere? Did I know much about designing, selling, or marketing clothing? Not really. But I also didn't know much about motherhood when I started that journey, either, and that seemed to be working out well. And so, Brief Transitions was born.

My quest began. With my manufacturing and engineering background I naively thought, It's one product. How hard could it be? While it may not have been “hard," it definitely took a lot of work. I slowly started to do some research on the possibilities. What would it take to start a company and bring these underwear to market? How are they made and what type of manufacturer do I need? With each step forward I learned a little more--I spoke with suppliers, researched materials, and experimented with packaging. I started to really believe that I was meant to bring these underwear to other moms in need.

Then I realized that I needed to learn more about the online business and ecommerce world as well. Google was my new best friend. On my one hour commute (each way), I listened to a lot of podcasts to learn about topics I wasn't familiar with--how to setup a website, social media platforms, email marketing, etc. I worked in the evenings and inbetween business trips to plan what I called Execution Phase. In 2016, I had a website with a Shopify cart up and running. I also delivered my second daughter via C-section (and handily also supplied myself with all the mesh underwear I needed).

They say, “If you build it, they will come." But I've learned that the saying should really go more like this: “If you build it, and tell everyone about it, they might come." I had a 3-month-old, an almost 3 year old and my business was up and running. I had an occasional sale; however, my processes were extremely manual and having a day job while trying to ship product out proved to be challenging. I was manually processing and filling orders and then going to the post office on Saturday mornings to ship to customers. I eventually decided to go where the moms shop...hello, Amazon Prime! I started to research what I needed to do to list products with Amazon and the benefits of Amazon fulfillment (hint: they take care of it for you).

Fast forward to 2018...

While I started to build this side business and saw a potential for it to grow way beyond my expectations, my corporate job became more demanding with respect to travel and time away from home. I was on the road 70% of the time during first quarter 2018. My normally “go with the flow" 4-year-old started to cry every time I left for a trip and asked why I wasn't home for bedtime. That was a low point for me and even though bedtime with young kids has its own challenges, I realized I didn't want to miss out on this time in their lives. My desire for more scheduling flexibility and less corporate travel time pushed me to work the nights and weekends needed to build and scale my side hustle to a full-time business. If anyone tries to tell you it's “easy" to build “passive" income, don't believe them. Starting and building a business takes a lot of grit, hustle and hard work. After months of agonizing, changing my mind, and wondering if I should really leave my job (and a steady paycheck!), I ultimately left my corporate job in April 2018 to pursue Brief Transitions full-time.

In building Brief Transitions, I reached out to like-minded women to see if they were experiencing similar challenges to my own--balancing creating and building a business while raising children--and I realized that many women are on the quest for flexible, meaningful work. I realized that we can advance the movement of female entrepreneurs by leveraging community to inspire, empower, and connect these trailblazers. For that reason, I recently launched a new project, The Transitions Collective, a platform for connecting community-driven women entrepreneurs.

As is the case with many entrepreneurs, I find myself working on multiple projects at a time. I am now working on a members-only community for The Transitions Collective that will provide access to experts and resources for women who want to leave corporate and work in their business full-time. Connecting and supporting women in this movement makes us a force in the future of work. At the same time, I had my most profitable sales quarter to date and best of all, I am able to drop my daughter off at school in the morning.

Mesh underwear started me on a journey much bigger than I ever imagined. They sparked an idea, ignited a passion, and drove me to find fulfillment in a different type of work. That stolen underwear was just the beginning.