Confessions of an E-Mail Addict
To get my work done, I had to kick this habit. How I learned to do it can help you too.
(MONEY Magazine) – When, or precisely how, my sleek, silver Palm Treo 650 phone/PDA took over my life I'm not sure, but the warning signs were clear: It replaced the book on my nightstand so I could check e-mail after David Letterman and before Matt Lauer and often in between. I'd be thumbing away when a red traffic light turned green and a voice prodded me from the back seat: "Mom, go!" It got to the point where I couldn't wait more than a second or two after the thing buzzed to see who was writing. I was an e-mail addict.
I wasn't alone. Recently my friend Amy joined me for a six-mile run with her BlackBerry and typed the whole time. I was starting to worry. It was taking me longer to finish my columns. I started forgetting items on the to-do list that I keep in my head. And I began to suspect that the constant interruptions had something to do with it.
Then, about a month ago, I picked up a back issue of Fortune magazine and learned that not all busy people were slaves to technology. Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz and Pimco bond guru Bill Gross put strict limits on their e-communicating.(Gross says that his most productive time is spent working out, doing yoga and—yes—thinking. Of course, he is a Californian.) And time-management expert Julie Morgenstern won't name names, but she says that more and more high-ranking execs at the Fortune 500 companies she consults for are giving up their BlackBerrys.
It's not hard to understand why: One-quarter of more than 7,800 managers at big companies recently surveyed by consultancy McKinsey & Co. reported being overwhelmed by their daily communications. And a survey last year by the Center for Work-Life Policy in New York City of people who work 60 or more hours a week in high-stress jobs found that 59% said technology lengthens—rather than shortens—their workday; 64% said it encroaches on family time.
For me, it was clearly time for less thumbing, more thinking. Less dependency, more downward dog. If you're always e-mailing on the go or constantly checking your inbox at work or at home (or if your spouse brings the laptop to bed), then read on. After talking with Morgenstern and several other experts on technology—and psychology—I've come up with a five-step plan for recovering addicts.
1) Admit the problem. Edward Hallowell, author of CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked and About to Snap, believes that e-mail can become a real, if not easily recognized, addiction. "I love technology," he says carefully, "but it's a grand seduction. You can fall into the trap of screen sucking—you go in to check e-mail and an hour later you're still there, mindlessly sending unimportant e-mails or surfing the Net."
2) Repeat this mantra: There are no e-mail emergencies. "If it's a true emergency, really, someone will call you," says Morgenstern. "They'll find a way to get in touch." That rang true to me. Yet we tend to treat e-mails as urgent. A survey by Basex, a technology research firm in New York City, reports that 55% of "knowledge workers"—people who work with information—check messages immediately or shortly after they're notified. Is that really what you want to do when you get the umpteenth notice about the J. Crew winter sale?
3) Tally up the cost. What happens when you check e-mail? For a minute, you turn your attention from whatever it is you're working on. Then, says Hallowell, it can take you 10 minutes or more to refocus on what you were doing—if you manage to get there at all.
4) Fight tech with tech. First, unsubscribe to all the useless electronic newsletters you receive. The day I decided it was time to take back control, I woke up to 79 messages, only a handful of which were more than sales pitches. I spent a good hour unsubscribing, then did it again when the 4 p.m.-to-5 p.m. batch rolled in. Within a week, I was down to 30, and I can trim some more.
Second, if your PDA or computer buzzes or dings or flashes an envelope when you have new mail, turn off that feature. You'll check messages when you want to, not because you've been conditioned to do it.
Finally, use an away message that's specific. An auto-reply for your e-mail (or instant-messaging program) that says you're writing a report or on a conference call lets people know that you're truly busy and not just blowing them off.
5) Hide the gadgets. "You have to make strategic decisions with how you invest your time in technology," says Hallowell, "so that it is serving you rather than you serving it." Put the BlackBerry away in a drawer when you get home, and turn it off. Don't keep your home laptop sitting open in the living room. I started to plug my Treo into a charger in another room at night, stopped taking it with me to the movies (instead, I borrow my son's phone for emergencies), and handed it to my kids in the car or left it in my handbag in the back seat.
Then fate intervened. The Treo's e-mail stopped working. The phone was fine. But e-mail was down completely. I tried to reset it to no avail. So I said the heck with it. No more mail on the fly for me. Now I can't promise that I won't relapse, but already the benefits are becoming clear. I wrote this column in less time than I've written one in months. Maybe there's yoga in my future, and yours too, after all.
THE E-MAIL CHAIN THAT BINDS
E-mail supposedly frees you up to spend time out of the office. But more and more of us are feeling that it ties us down instead.
Managers at big companies who feel overwhelmed by their daily communications
Workers who read e-mails almost immediately after they get them
Workers in long-hour jobs who believe technology has lengthened their day
SOURCES: Basex; Center for Work-Life Policy; McKinsey & Co.
Editor-at-large Jean Chatzky appears regularly on NBC's Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.