It’s been just over four months since I posted about my experiment, Email. Twice daily. No more, no less. where I shared my plans to restrict myself to checking email only twice a day at designated times. In the post, I had hinted at sharing my lessons months later. So, it’s time to throw my dirty laundry in the street and expose myself.
First off.. the brutal truth. It’s really fucking hard to maintain this. Habits are nearly as hard to make as they are to break. I suspect that I honor my rule 2-3 days each week and it’s completely inconsistent the remainder. Usually, I find myself looking at email at 8:30am and have to slap myself and yell, “what are you doing?!!?”
Guilt sinks in and I hit ⌘-q. Problem solved… for a little while.
So, what has lead to this. Well, one of the biggest hurdles has been that one of our largest clients is now focused more in the United Kingdom. Luckily, I’m an early-morning person, but this means that my 10am PDT rule wouldn’t have me checking for their precious emails until 6pm GMT their time. Not exactly acceptable. So, I’ve been more flexible in the mornings and responding to emails as early as 5-6am PDT. However, I realize that I’m cheating myself of previous focus time and need to recalibrate my email windows.
Given these new constraints, I’m now trying 8:30am and 2:30pm as my primary email times.
I’m curious how this has been working out for you…
On a recent trip to Las Vegas, I picked up The Four Hour Workweek for my Amazon Kindle to read on my flight. When I came back from my short vacation, I decided that I was going to change how I approach email on a daily basis. In my position, I receive a lot of business-related emails on a daily basis, whether that be from employees, clients, or potential clients. A typical day would consist of me trying to get a few tasks done while keeping an eye on any new requests. This resulted in a lot of context-switching and my days were extremely fragmented. Our team had started an experiment where we’d track all of our time throughout the day on printout. Our goal was to log all of our start/stop times for each activity and also capture each interruption within those time windows. After just a few days of doing this, I was noticing how much time was being spent on emails each day. I also noticed that it was rare to have a full hour of uninterrupted work on a single activity. Aside from distractions that you’d typically find in an office environment, email was keeping me from attaining the level of focus that I was seeking on my work.
So, using some motivation from The Four Hour Workweek1, I opted to come back to the studio and change my behavior. That morning, I emailed my entire team and my clients to let them know that I would only be checking my email at 10am and 4pm each day. I explained that they could call me at the studio if there was something that needed my urgent attention. Admittedly, I was nervous as I hit send. What was I getting myself into? What were my clients going to think? Would they think that I’m just an unorganized mess?
Three weeks later…? It was one of the best emails that I’ve sent in ages.
The Results… (so far)
Here are a few realizations and conclusions that I’ve been able to attribute to this change.
My World Didn’t Collapse
Before I made this decision, I came up with a lot of excuses for why this was a bad idea.
- I might not respond fast enough to a new sales lead
- A client might forget and send me an urgent request via email
- Insert any other reason related to you just not following up quick enough…
In three weeks, none of these things has bitten me in the ass. It hasn’t been perfect, but I don’t believe that it’s had any significant impact that outweighed the benefits.
Less Time Spent on Emails
I spend less time on email than I did before. Why? I don’t treat email the same way that I used to. As a result of approaching email differently, I noticed that I am now more likely to keep my emails short and sweet… and most importantly, to the point. One of the great things about Gmail is that it’s made it easy to have conversation-style emails with people, but it’s also made it too easy to have conversations with people. I now realize that so many conversations that I would participate via email would entail single sentence questions/responses with similar length follow-ups. Each time you come back to that email, your attention is on that conversation and those can eat up a lot of time if you’re not careful.
So, now that I’m checking email twice a day, I tend to write only what is necessary to move the conversation forward until the next time I check my email. As a result, email conversations are slower now, but they aren’t taking as much of my time. The benefits have outweighed the negatives.
More Focus Time
Since this change, there has been a handful of days where I have been able to focus completely on a single activity (task) for over a hour at a time. My record was nearly three hours one morning early last week. Unfortunately, I completed the task I had budgeted five hours for was finished in less than three. ;-)
I’m able to do this more now because I’ve been able to release my check-your-email-again-just-to-be-safe demons. I’ve been able to trust my system and I’ll share some tips on how I eased myself into this.
More focus time has allowed me to spend less time working on individual tasks because they are subjected to nearly as much context-switching.
More Creative Time
Another benefit that I’ve seen since this change is that with this time that I’ve salvaged, I find myself with more time to be creative. I haven’t pinpointed what the reason behind this is, but I do feel like I’ve been more creative the past few weeks than I have been for the several months prior. Perhaps it’s just a side-effect to altering my workday… or that I don’t feel like a victim to the INBOX… or that it’s been extremely sunny in Portland… or that I’m more aware of how I’m spending my day.
Whatever it was, it started within days after I implemented this new approach to managing email. I’m happy to attribute it to this for the time being. ;-)
How I Did It
Here are a few things that I did to start this process. Credit is due to Tim Ferris for suggesting most of these and here are some of my further thoughts.
List Your Excuses
Chances are, you don’t have as many as you think you do. I started with the critical ones and really weighed the pros/cons. It’s safe to use the, “Will anybody die if I do this?” question to help you respond to each of these. You can be a little less cynical and ask yourself, “Will we go out of business if I do this?”... or “Will we lose client X if I do this?”
Then ask yourself, “Is it unreasonable for me to do this?” If the answer to, “will we lose client X if I do this?” and this don’t match up, you might want to re-evaluating your client roster. If your clients are reasonable people, they’ll see that there is value in this that will benefit both parties. As I mentioned, just remind them that they can call you if there an urgent request. If they abuse this, straighten them out or it’s time to re-evaluate your client roster.
It’s not unreasonable to protect your time as much as possible, despite how much they pay you.
Set a Time (use a calendar reminder)
You can’t just say, “I’m only going to check my email twice a day.” There isn’t any way that I would have been able to honor such a commitment. “When exactly?,” is the obvious response to that.
I set a scheduled event on my calendar that happens everyday at 10am and 4pm. I have a 15 minute notice on that event so that I’m reminded that it’s time to wrap up what I’m working on. When I have a conflicting meeting, I will just reschedule my email for another time of the day. The time is visible to all of my teammates and my clients know when I’ll be catching up on email.
Why did I chose 10am and 4pm? Well, I start my day at the studio at 7am. This allows me to have up to three hours of time to focus on getting other things done before tackling email. Why 4pm? This is a hour or so before I leave for the day. Email isn’t the first or the last thing on my mind at each ends of my workday.
Communicate the Change
This will not work if you don’t set peoples expectations. If people are accustomed to you being extremely quick to respond to emails and you change your behavior all of a sudden, you’re going to freak them out. Let them know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and you might even encourage them to consider it too. More often than not, everyone you work with is feeling overwhelmed and wants more control over their day. Send them a link to this post. ;-)
It all comes back to managing their expectations.
Quit Your Email application
Seriously, quit that application when you’re not using it. In fact, quit any program that is open when it’s not related to the activity that you’re focused on. For email, we use Gmail for domains and I run it through Fluid. This means that at 10am and 4pm, I launch the Fluid app and start working my way through emails. Once I get through my inbox and finish what I need to handle right now, I quit it.
Also… disable email notifications. They aren’t worth it.
I’ve been practicing the habit of keeping my INBOX empty for nearly a year. Everything gets labelled, organized, and archived properly once I open up each email. Some stuff gets sent to Highrise to respond to later while some emails get an immediate response.
One of my favorite things about maintaining Inbox Zero and checking my email twice daily is that when I open up my email client, I’m faced with a list of nothing but unread emails. Since I know they’re all unread, I can start at the oldest and move my way through them, one by one. When I get to the end of that list, I’m almost done. I then fire up Highrise to see if there is anybody to get back to today. If so, I fire off those emails and close off those tasks. Once I have both lists completed, I’m done.
The one thing that I’m working on the hardest right now is not cheating. I’ve caught myself a few times. I’m waiting in line at the coffee shop and I pull out my iPhone. Out of habit, I launch the Mail.app and find myself looking at incoming emails. You might argue that if you’re not in the middle of something, it’s a good way to feel useful, but I’m sure that there are other things you can be tackling. Your email will be there at 10am… I promise.
The biggest problem with cheating is that if you see that someone responded to something you sent in your previous email, it’ll force you to make a decision. a) do you look now? or b) look later? If you choose b, your brain is going to be wondering what she said. It’s can really bug you for a few hours. Trust me. :-)
It’s only been three weeks since I adopted this and I know it’s far from perfect. However, I assure you… it’s been worth the self-proclaimed risks. I enjoy my email time more than I used to. As I mentioned earlier, I like being presented with a healthy list of unread emails to work my way through. Sometimes it takes only five minutes to get through them all, sometimes a hour or more if I have a lot of people to follow up with.
It’s been a fun ride so far and I’m sure that there are many more challenges ahead, but I am planning to stay on course. Who knows, maybe I can move to once daily after a few months?
I fucked up this last week.
On Monday, our primary contact for a large client sent over some last minute requirements and deadlines that were needed by end-of-day Wednesday. I didn’t have a lot of time to collect requirements and execute it without having to rearrange my priorities. But, I accepted the challenge.
The big change involved was that we were going to be supplied with a ton of data to be imported in to the database and approximately 20% of the data provided was new records, while the rest were duplicates. However, the other 80% wasn’t to be discarded as there were a few attributes that needed to be updated from the data file (which was supplied from the client’s parent company). In my haste to get the task done on time (didn’t get proper export file to be imported in our system until Wednesday morning)... I ended up running a few tests locally and pushed it out to production.
I managed to get the import file to run in production before leaving on Wednesday afternoon. The following morning, I came into the office to find out that my import process didn’t match up records properly and resulted in nearly all of the 80% side of that to be duplicated in the system. This resulted in lost productivity for our client, their vendors, and our team over a 12 hour period as people were confused about why reports were running weird, online transactions didn’t account for the duplicated, etc.
It took me most of Thursday and Friday to clean up the data that got skewed due to that oversight. Hi ho.
So, the take away from this? Sure, I could have blamed it on a lack of sufficient time to properly test things, but that’s bullshit. I should have had at least one other developer from our team review the problem and evaluate my proposed solution prior to me attempting to push into production.
Luckily, the client was happy that we were able to finish the last minute tasks, despite the unexpected headaches that cropped up.
If anything, I was just disappointed in myself, but Alex reminded me how important it was to fail early, fail often. It didn’t kill me (or anybody else for that matter), cost us the project, nor was it irreparable.
In the real world, deadlines and requirements change on a moments notice and it’s experiences like this that will make ourselves more confident that we can quickly respond to and execute.
What was your latest failure?
When Chris Griffin saw this post, he wanted to do the same with RubyURL. Since the ShortURL gem was broken, I didn’t get a chance to dive into it. However, with the shorturl command now working again with RubyURL, we get QuickSilver and RubyURL working together really quickly.
First, you’ll need a recent version of the ShortURL gem installed.
sudo gem install shorturl
Then you will want to add the following to
~/Library/Scripts/rubyurl.scpt. You will need to create this file.
# # Change accordingly if shorturl is not under /usr/bin/shorturl # set shorturl_cmd to "/opt/local/bin/shorturl" tell application "Safari" set original_url to URL of front document end tell set cmd to shorturl_cmd & " " & original_url set ruby_url to do shell script cmd set the clipboard to ruby_url as text beep
Then you can add this script to run through QuickSilver. For details, jump to the setup process on this post.
This will make it much easier to paste RubyURLs into my Twitter client, IRC, etc.
I’ll try to post a more thorough tutorial soon, but wanted to share in the meantime.
Like many… I’ve been using del.icio.us for several years and so have some of my closest colleagues. A few of us at PLANET ARGON have been using the
for:username tag to send each other links, which has been a great productivity hack as we don’t need to copy URLs and paste them into emails, IMs, or IRC channel windows anymore. One of the things that del.icio.us doesn’t have a totally perfect implementation is sending to a group. There are people in your network, but to my knowledge, there isn’t a way to send everyone in a network the same link without selecting everyone individually. This was adding more time to the process of saving a link for ourselves and our fellow team members. So, we came up with a clever hack… a new delicious user account.
Over the past four months, our team has bookmarked almost four hundred links on topics ranging from Rails plugins, Interaction Design, Business processes, cool new web applications, to any variety of things that we find relevant to our team.
So, all of the links are being sent to a fake user. How do we see the links for that user without having to logout of our current user and into the planetargon account? Well, what we’ve done is take the delicious RSS feed and pipe it through feedburner and given everyone the URL that feedburner provides. Now, we’re all able to subscribe to the same feed and check out links when each of us has time for it.
...and this is what I get to see show up in my RSS reader. :-)
How is your team managing bookmarks? :-)
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