Friday, November 28, 2014

Why I Limit Email

Friday, November 28, 2014
I have always appreciated that traveling is a time to get out of habitual ways of thinking and acting and to look at life with an elevated perspective.  One habit I can’t maintain while traveling is that of checking and responding to all emails (almost) every day and of obsessively checking my email several times per day. 

After a three-week trip, I look at my email inbox.  It feels like looking at old lover with whom I keep reengaging even though I’ve tasted the sweetness of liberation from our recurring pattern of drama and dysfunction.  I sit here craving her.  Wanting her.  Remembering full well why I stepped away and remembering just as poignantly why I made a habit in the first place.  A bad habit.  An addiction.  It hurts inside to recognize that a habit is a bad one and to choose it again and again. 

The first time audit I ever did revealed I was spending about half my work time on email.  This was troubling to me, considering that much of my time on email was spent nervously scrolling back and forth in a state of overwhelm.  This inspired my first leap into studying personal productivity and time management, which has involved negotiating and renegotiating my relationship to email and other work habits over the course of the years.  I'm confident I could not have achieved what I've achieved without having broken the stranglehold of habits that didn't work and introduced mindfulness and choice into my work life.  

Having been away three weeks, the visual cues in my office trigger my email checking compulsions and yet I’ve also got enough distance to feel how good it is not to indulge, how nice it is to have choice, to be free.  David Allen convinced me of the value of daily Inbox Zero, which I’ve been (mostly) limiting to one 25-minute chunk per day (a “Pomodoro”).  Timothy Ferris, author of the 4 Hour Work Week argues alternatively for ½ hour of email per week.  Email, he argues, keeps us reactive instead of proactive, responding to relatively unimportant things that take lots of time without getting results.  I find this to be true in my work.  Ferris recommends batching like tasks, eliminating distractions and interruptions and automating processes in order to liberate yourself to live the life and do the work of which you dream.  

Sitting at this threshold, I see possibility and also resistance, fear.  The ego holds onto an old wound even when freedom is in sight.  Why is my ego structure is wrapped up with email addiction?  It gives me a sense of being important, of mattering, being necessary, indispensable.  It gives me cause to increase my heart rate, get a burst of adrenaline, increase focus, a sense that I’m responding to something urgent, staying on top of it, handling it. 

Previously, as Executive Director of the Stone Soup Café, overseeing a weekly meal, there were time-sensitive responses for which people were waiting.  If I didn’t respond, I’d slow down one cog that would ripple to other cogs in the system.  But, in order to be more aligned with my personal purpose and increase my positive impact on the world, I’ve made changes in my work life.  People aren’t relying on me to fill volunteer slots each Saturday, but I have committed to publishing a book.  I’m not getting random inquiries from volunteers, but I’ve committed to multiple types of regular monthly correspondence with a set number of emerging Café leaders.  I’m not attending various meetings every week, but I am cultivating long-term relationships with high-leverage national partners.  Instead of time-sensitive quick responses, my current commitments require focused concentration, from an elevated perspective, over a prolonged period of time.  Especially because much of this work will be done sitting in front of a computer, habitually checking email threatens to distract me from moving forward on these commitments.  

There are costs to the presence, choice, efficiency and effectiveness I will experience as a result of this shift.  People have grown to expect quick responses from me and may be disappointed if they don't here from me.  There will still certainly be times when responding to a time-sensitive email will influence a social or work situation.  In order to readjust people's expectations and also encourage them to contact me by phone for urgent matters, I follow Ferris' suggestion and use an auto-response that explains my new policy.