The idea of restricting my email checking and focusing more long periods on “deep work” had been brewing in my head for a while. One of my favorite blogs, Barking Up the Wrong Tree by Erik Barker, talked about skipping email first thing in themorning. Another one of my favorite blogs, Study Hacks by Cal Newport, talks about restricting email (or as he suggests eliminate it entirely). One of the overarching themes of his blog is that we need to deliberately carve out more time to do the deep work that is both 1) what knowledge workers in our economy really get paid for and 2) what we find most meaningful. The issue when reading anything intriguing like this is to figure out how to apply this to my work.
I decided I would try the following experiment for organizing my day and see how well they worked.
· From 9 am – 11:30 I would pick 1 – 2 tasks to dive into (i.e., do deep focused work) on for 1 – 1.5 hours from
· I would limit checking emails to before lunch (11:30 - noon) and leaving (16:00 – 16:30)
· Immediately after lunch I would set aside another 1.5 hour block to focus on deep work
· I would do shorter tasks (that could be completed in less an hour from 2 pm – 4:30
· Spend the first hour on Monday mapping out the week
Obviously externally scheduled meeting and meeting that I set up with other people could occasionally cut into these deep work times, but I wanted to be deliberate about scheduling shorter tasks.
One issue that I quickly learned in that I could not simply “not check” my email - i.e., it was not just a matter of will power (although that was part of the problem). Even assuming I had the self-control to not flip to my inbox, I would often find that I need to go there to reference an email that someone else had sent me. Even as I quickly typed in my search for the needed email, I would inevitably scan the subject lines and often get diverted to answers one or two seemingly urgent and “quick” emails. Even if I somehow managed to avoid scanning the subject lines, the boldened emails in my inbox would weigh on my attention.
Either the building number of emails or one of the subject lines would taunt me and derail my concentration. The solution I found was the “Work Offline” feature.
|How to reference your emails without checking them|
This feature meant that nothing came in or went out (emails and schedule invites). I could still look at my calendar and search old emails. Emails that I composed when working offline sat in the Outbox queue awaiting their reunion with the interweb to go on their merry way.
Built in Pause
Working offline gave me the chance to refine emails. Before I would dash off an email with some issue that came to mind. When I started working offline I started going back to these emails that were in the Outbox (i.e., queued up to send, but not yet sent) and adding to them as I came up with additional question or refining my questions to be more specific.
Occasionally, I would remove stuff from emails as I learned additional information from talking to folks. Sometimes I even deleted emails when I solved the issue brought I brought my emails back online.
The most selfish benefit was this this prevented me from looking foolish when I did NOT sent an email for a question that I just needed to do more legwork on. More altruistically, it reduced the number of emails clogging other peoples’ inboxes. Finally, in cases where I refined and edited emails, it got me better responses or at least reduced the number of emails that I needed to send (no more of: “oh, one more question related to this topic. . .”).
But you’re always busy. . .
Then I stumbled into an Outlook specific issue: by scheduling out my day it made it difficult for other people in my office to set up meetings with me. Outlook lets us look at other people’s schedules and see where open spots are. But by scheduling my days it made it look like I was busy and thus I was an impediment to these necessary huddles.
The solution here was another little feature of Outlook that makes me think I’m not the first person to try these things: you can set any block of time to show as free or busy to other people. So while I was trying to be deliberate with how I used my time, I also realized that in my office’s culture I needed to compromise and be selective on what blocks of time I labeled as scheduled.
Forcing better writing
Only checking email periodically also forced me to write better. Sometimes my work required input from someone else that was best done via email. In the past I might have fired off an email in the morning and worked on short tasks until they responded. Now I either had to send this email out the day before; wait until the next email check; or, if it was really important, call or talk to the person. While this initially seemed to be an imposition, it actually makes your email better. Consider the example email chain:
Me: We should discuss this.
Client: Yes, agreed.
Me: When should we discussed this?
Client: How about tomorrow at 1?
Client: I already have a meeting scheduled then, how about 2 pm?
Me: I'm busy then. Can you send me a few times that work for you?
Client: I'm free at times x, y and z
Me: Okay, time y works.
Under my new system, this exchange would take over a day. So instead I hadto think about how to craft an email to create less back-and-forth. So instead of the example six email exchange a new email might look like this:
Me: If you would like to meet to discuss this, send me two or three times that work for you and I will send out a meeting invite.
Client Yes, let’s discuss. I’m free tomorrow from 1 – 3 or the day after from 10 = 11:30.
Me: Outlook meeting invite for tomorrow at 2 pm
There were humorous and not that bad: folks occasionally bring goodies into the break area and send out an office-wide email. In particular, I remember one day where I missed out on someone’s going-away cake.
I also occasionally miss out on last-minute generic group invites to go grab a snack or attend a quick meeting.
Closing thoughts, for now
As I expected, no one noticed or has been that bothered. The challenges have been there but no one has been left in the lurch. I did not need to change the whole office culture of email to reap the personal benefits.
It has been a process of weaning myself off of continuous email checking. I found that when I was trying to dive into a long block on a focused task I would take time to get my mind into what I was doing. I would often absentmindedly flip to the inbox for some “hit” that would distract me from the daunting task I was getting into. It was a habit – I was often in the inbox before my thoughts caught up.
The benefits of stress reduction and focused work were obvious from the first day. I still have a ways to go when it comes to planning for focused work and actually focusing on a task for an hour and a half or more but nearly a year in, this experiment has been successful beyond any productivity tip that I have tried so far.