How to Stop Checking E-mail on the Evenings and Weekends

53 Comments

[Reposted from Lifehacker, where I guest posted this article this morning.]

Investment bankers aren’t known for their impulse control.

Several global firms in Zurich don’t allow their bankers to check email more than twice per day. The reason is simple: the more they check email, the more compelled they feel to send email. Technologist Robert Scoble has said that for each email he sends, he gets 1.75 to 2 messages in return. This phenomenon highlights the unscalable nature of most time-management approaches: striving to do more just produces increasingly more to do.

Fifty email messages beget 100, which beget 200 and so on. It’s impossible to manage this with a results-by-volume (or frequency) approach. There are two cornerstone behavioral changes for reversing this trend: check email less frequently (so we send fewer messages) and send fewer messages when we do check (so we trigger fewer exchanges).

Here are eight concrete tips and services for digital minimalism that can help eliminate—as a start—compulsive inboxing during the evenings and weekends:

Treat all of them as short experiments and customize.

1. “Batch” email at set times.

Have an email-checking schedule and do not deviate. There is an inevitable task-switching cost otherwise—U.S. office workers spend 28% of their time switching between tasks due to interruption, and 40% of the time, an interrupted task is not resumed within 24 hours. Use template autoresponders to alert people of your email schedule and encourage them to call if something needs faster attention. The “urgent” email-to-call conversion is usually less than 10%.

This gives you breathing room to focus on predefined to-do’s instead of responding to manufactured emergencies and ending the day with nothing to show for it.

Alternative approaches include appending your signature with your email schedule, having only email from certain contacts forwarded to your Crackberry/PDA, and—if a manager of a small group—setting an inbox checking schedule for internally-generated email. Ensure that your first batch is around 10 or 11 a.m. and never first thing in the morning, as you want a meaningful volume (1/4-1/3rd of the daily total), and you should accomplish at least one critical to-do before going into reactive mode.

2. Send and read email at different times.

Go offline and respond to all email from a local program such as Outlook or Mail to avoid having the outgoing flow interrupted by immediate responses.

Ever noticed how effective it is to respond to your email while on an airplane? Manufacture that environment by going offline to batch send.

3. Don’t scan email if you can’t immediately fix problems encountered.??

One simple example: don’t scan the inbox on Friday evening or over the weekend if you might encounter work problems that can’t be addressed until Monday. This is the perfect way to ruin a weekend with preoccupation. Remember that just as income has no value without time, time has no value without attention.

4. Don’t BIF people during off-hours.

“BIF” stands for “before I forget” and refers to emails sent on evenings or weekends out of fear of forgetting a to-do or follow-up. This sets a mutual expectation of 24/7 work hours and causes a plethora of problems. There are a number of better alternatives. First, use a service like Jott.com instead that allows you to send voice reminders via cell, which are transcribed and sent to your inbox or someone else’s. If to someone else’s, be sure to add “no need to respond until [next work hours].” Second, if you prefer low-tech, externalize follow-ups and to-do’s in a small notebook like a Moleskine instead of entering the “bet you can’t eat just one” inbox.

5. Don’t use the inbox for reminders or as a to-do list.

Related to 4 above. Don’t mark items as “unread,” star them, or otherwise leave them in the inbox as a constant reminder of required actions. This just creates visual distraction while leading you to evaluate the same items over and over. Put them into a calendar (or Moleskine or other capturing system) for follow-up and archive the email, even if that calendar item is just “Respond to 2/10 email from Suzie.” [From Gina at Lifehacker: See the “Trusted Trio” system for moving email messages out of your inbox and into one of three places: Archive, Hold (calendar item for a later date), or Follow-Up (your to-do list.)]

6. Set rules for email-to-phone escalation.

One Senior VP in a Fortune 500 company recently told me that he’s established a simple policy with his direct reports that has cut email volume by almost 40%: once a decision generates more than four emails total in a thread, someone needs to pick up the phone to resolve the issue.

7. Before writing an email, ask yourself: “what problem am I trying to solve?” or “what is my ideal outcome?”

Unclear purpose, usually a symptom of striving to be busy instead of productive, just requires later clarification from all parties and multiplies back-and-forth volume. Be clear in desired results or don’t hit that Send button

8. Learn to make suggestions instead of asking questions.

Stop asking for suggestions or solutions and start proposing them. Begin with the small things. Rather than asking when someone would like to meet next week, propose your ideal times and second choices. If someone asks, “Where should we eat?”, “What movie should we watch?”, “What should we do tonight?”, or anything similar, do not reflect it back with “Well, what/when/where do you want to…?” Offer a solution. Stop the back and forth and make a decision. Practice this in both personal and professional environments. Here are a few lines that help (my favorites are the first and last):

“Can I make a suggestion?”
“I propose…”
“I’d like to propose…”
“I suggest that… what do you think?”
“Let’s try… and then try something else if that doesn’t work.”

Remember: in email, the small things are the big things. If you can cut an exchange from six to three email messages, that’s a 50% reduction in your inbox volume over time. This can make the difference between working all the time and leaving the office (both physically and mentally) at 5 p.m.

Less is more.

###

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Posted on: February 18, 2008.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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53 comments on “How to Stop Checking E-mail on the Evenings and Weekends

  1. A small note to add to point 5: Google Calendar will send text reminders to your cell phone. You can toggle this feature for any given event, I think. Putting a reminder there is faster than sending yourself an email, and it will more reliably reach you wherever you are, if it’s really that important.

    Like

  2. I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Peter Quinn

    Like

  3. Its a learning process for both you and everyone you deal with. I personally like the email signature Tim talked about saying that you respond only at certain times. That way people can ring if they need to…but it in the long run, its improves your efficiency. I was always stuck in the trap of switching between tasks and forcing myself to get re-focussed. But this really helps me as well as setting designated times for recreational surfing. I feel so much accomplished when I leave too

    Like

  4. Tim

    You have identified (and offered remedies) to an insidious workplace issue. These technologies that can liberate us, have a habit of actually sucking the “free time” out of our lives.

    Since taking a leaf out of your book and practicing a more disciplined approach to email, phone calls and general interruptions my productivity has skyrocketed along with my free time. As the owner of a business I now spend mornings away from the office to concentrate on whatever is important (work ideas, thinking, exercise, my family). I usually check my emails for the first time around 11am, alerting me of any urgent actions that may be required (and usually rapidly delegated). Upon arrival at office I have already cleared my inbox and can sit down to work solidly on the most productive items on my to do list. I generally don’t accept interruptions til then. Once I have completed necessary tasks, I will return calls, check with staff and do one more email check to clear the box for the day. Then its quickly out the door to my next non-work activity.

    This new approach has changed my life. Now if I could find a way to implement it for my staff, I would be close to bottling workplace gold.

    Any thoughts?

    Like

  5. Good list. OK, so this might be obvious, but how about this one?: don’t open your email during weekends (or better yet, don’t turn on the computer).

    Another idea, which you’ve encouraged, it to have so much awesome stuff going down that email is the last thing you’re thinking about. That’s my favorite :-)

    Thanks Tim,
    Clay

    ###

    Hi Clay,

    Point #2 is key. If people have to choose between boredom or feeling productive (even if they aren’t), they’ll choose the latter. Thanks for the comment!

    Tim

    Like

  6. Wow. Great ideas to prevent email from becoming your job. Points 7 & 8 are tremendous time and hassle savers, (not to mention terrific ways to become a bit more assertive, in a nice way)and go along with the “no-complaining” manifesto. And no BIFing, if it’s not important enough to remember/write down/message yourself, it’s not important.

    Like

  7. Tim

    I just bought your book over the weekend and I got to say it is pretty interesting. It only took me two days to finish. I really didn’t expect much out of the book but it definitely woke me up. I’m only 17 right now but this e-mail monster is a growing problem and I have to say you pretty much made my life peaceful again.

    I won’t reveal any of the other things that you wrote but just keep it up.

    Like

  8. Tim, I have a massive time savings idea for email that may not have occurred to a young guy like you. Many folks of my generation, especially men, NEVER LEARNED TO TYPE. I watch every day as these folks sit at their keyboards and hunt and peck as they painfully send emails. By just picking up the phone, or using the high tech approach of voice recognition software, the time savings these folks could achieve would be tremendous.

    PS. Love your blog (even the break dancing stuff).

    ###

    Hi Alan,

    This is a very, very important point and will be the subject of a future post I’ve been planning for some time. Good call :)

    Tim

    Like

  9. Information overflow, epsecially e-mail overload, is a problem for everyone know.

    Some great ideas here Tim, and not just for nights and weekends.

    One problem I’m hearing more and more about (and personally experiencing): people in other time zones expecting you to work and be responsive during their time zones… to the point where work is becoming 24 hours a day. Tim’s suggestions: “Check email only 2x per day”, and “use an autoresponder” (to set expectations) can be the start of a great solution to that problem.

    David

    Like

  10. so Tim, what is your latest project manager or organizer software or CRM? Do you use a PDA? Any recommendations?

    I’m afraid you’re going to say to minimize the info intake to the point I don’t need these tools, but I think a CRM is much better than just email since I can see the history of anyone I deal with, all in one spot. And with project management software I can update a to-do list for employees and clients rather than random emails where I have to restate the main topic first.

    as always, your insights are valued!
    ~V

    ###

    Hi Victory,

    I use a Palm Z22 for contacts and address book, and I use Google Docs and PBWiki for sharing documents, which acts as my CRM (or project management) tool.

    Hope that helps!

    Tim

    Like

  11. Hi Tim
    I’ve just done the “empty your inbox” exercise Gina at Lifehacker has developed and it feels GOOD!

    I’m late to the game (47) but taking focussed positive action is like getting a shot of adrenalin.

    Cheers matey.

    Like

  12. Tim I thought you were a con man who got lucky with a best-seller because he had a catchy title. But this post is real quality and I commend you for it. I’ve experienced exactly what you describe and now check my mail once a day because of your “low info diet” advice. it really does work and its great you have some stats in your article ti support your points – stats that are liklely to be real. You’d go all the way to being top quality if you referenced your stats to quality research. Well done Tim. Outsourcing rocks too – have freed up my time for more important stuff. Found Indian outsourcing unreliable though so have used local expertise.

    Like

  13. Tim IMHO, of late you’ve started posting too frequently. The articles lacks the punch the had a while back.

    ###

    Hi Andre,

    Thanks for the comment. I’m sorry to hear this — it seems that feelings cut both ways on the frequency issue. Some people like the more frequent postings, while others prefer the much more infrequent postings. I’m experimenting with a number of different variables right now and have some (I think) interesting posts coming up. That said, excluding a few self-indulgent posts here and there (V-day, etc.) that I need to write just to keep this entertaining for me, I’m personally quite happy with most posts.

    I’d love to hear what you think is lacking specifically, as this will help me provide better content.

    Cheers,

    Tim

    Like

  14. Hi Tim, great article. This was one of my favorite chapters in your book :-)

    I do have one question. How do you deal with email from fans who write to give compliments on your work? Do you respond? From a fan’s perspective it strengthens the bond when they get a personal response & they feel like you’ve read what they had to say, but it is not fair to you if you receive hundreds of those.

    I ask because I am in a similar situation (although smaller volume than what you have to deal with, I am sure) and I resent the expectation of a response such emails create, even though I am of course flattered.

    Outsourcing is not justified to me yet, as the volume of work would be small and sporadic, and it is not really for work – just my hobby; and frankly it feels a bit impersonal. And that’s the opposite of the reason a fan would write. They want a personal touch. But still, I find this form of distraction too counter-productive.

    Do you have any advice on how… not to respond… while still making your fans feel appreciated and giving them the feeling of personal touch?

    ###

    Hi IS,

    This is a tough one for anyone who gets fan mail. In my case, the volume just doesn’t permit me to personally respond to all, so I have my virtual assistant reply to most with a sincere thank youl. I do, however, read nearly all of them and respond to a hand full.

    Hope that helps!

    Tim

    Like

  15. Thanks for the heads up on these tools Tim, I just browsed through some of them and I think I will start implementing them. I also, wanted to let you know that the forum has some really cool peeps on there. It is not like most forums, these guys are actually trying to do something to improve the quality of their lives. Impressive!

    Jose Castro-Frenzel

    Like

  16. Don’t want to miss a personal email over the weekend? (But also don’t want businss cluttering your free time?)

    Solution: Set up a personal email account completely separate from your business email, and make your friends and family use it. (Sometimes a lame excuse such as “just found out that IT is reading all of our corporate email” can help reinforce.)

    This one tip (from 4HWW and/or Lifehacker?) has saved me countless hours of inattention in the past 6 months. (See point #3 above.) Best wishes!

    Like