Secret Success Factors Vol. 2: Shut Off Email

I just finished my email hour for the morning, and it was especially productive today.  So I’m feeling like a time-management genius, and extending that enthusiasm into a new blog entry.  Those who know me would laugh at this, because I’m anything but a time management genius, but I’m on the road to getting better and batch-processing my email is a major part of that.

When sitting at my desk, I used to be notified three different ways when a new email arrived: BlackBerry vibrating, system tray pop-up, and chime.  And that’s just work email.  Add personal email, work phone calls, personal phone calls, and social media and it’s easy to estimate 15+ interruptions per hour if I’m sitting at my desk.  Not cool.

I read somewhere (probably Fast Company) that a recent study found that every interruption can cost up to 25 minutes in switching time.  25 minutes!  I’ve heard other studies use 7 minutes and 11 minutes.  But even if we use the 7 minute number, those switching minutes can add up so quickly as to dominate my entire day.  When I only have an hour or two to pound out a presentation, all those distractions can mean the difference between a nice piece of work and something I had to hastily pull together because I ran out of time.

I started taking my laptop away from my desk, disconnecting from the Internet, and taking over a conference room or empty office to get my work done.  I’ve been doing that for the last few years, and it works pretty well.  The drawback is that I’m away from my team and I don’t have access to the Internet all the time.  A different approach was needed.  So instead of unplugging and leaving, I started shutting down email.  Initially this was only once or twice a week when I needed to truly focus.  But then I thought, “When don’t I need to focus?  When can I get distracted”  So now, as a matter of course, I check email three times a day for up to an hour each time.  Every morning, every afternoon, and every night.  Other than those times, Outlook, Gmail and TweetDeck are closed.

Even though I set aside an hour each time, I don’t think I’ve ever spent 3 hours a day responding to email.  But until I started chunking up my work this way, I would have guessed I spend 4 – 6 hours responding to email every day.  Even if it’s only in my head, I feel like I’ve uncovered an extra 2 – 3 hours each day.  Nice!

They say you should work on large projects first thing when you arrive work because the morning is when you’re less likely to be disturbed.  I agree.  So I check my email at home, then head in and start a project.  Then email again later in the day, and at night usually after dinner.  I haven’t fielded a single complaint about not being available or responding quickly enough, and I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything.

My early concern was that I wouldn’t feel connected to everything that’s going on at work.  When I look around, everyone’s on their BlackBerry checking email, so there must be a lot of urgent business to attend to, right?  Wrong.  Three times a day is more than enough to stay connected, and people can always find me if they need me urgently.  But I’m not an ER doctor, so I don’t know what really qualifies as “urgent.”  It’s not a perfect system, but it’s working for me.

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