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Why I Stopped Checking Email So Much

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Communication is key in this digital age. We are able to stay in touch with everyone we meet through email, phones, twitter, and facebook. We constantly know when someone is trying to get a hold of us and our attention. This sounds like a great thing, until you put it into practice. What really ends up happening is that you get a bunch of spam you don’t want, voicemails that pile up, six million tweets a second and you now know way too much about your friends. All of these ways to interact with other people are available for the very high price of your time and attention.

For grad students, nothing is more important than our time. We spend a ton of it on our projects and the last thing we need is another distraction to take us away from the things we need to be doing. I want to share with you why email was such a time suck for me and what I did to fight back. Twitter, phones, and facebook have their own special time-wasting capabilities, but email is one that gets everybody.

My usual routine in the morning went something like this: Go to computer. Load Chrome and check email. Go through some emails. Think about working on something while staring at Gmail. Start working on something. Get momentarily distracted. Repeat from the beginning.

This cycle is not only silly, but it was not conducive to getting any sort of meaningful work done at all. The need I felt to instantly respond to any email was ridiculous. Whenever my mind wandered for a moment, I kept going back to my email. I finally recognized the fact that constantly checking email wasn’t helping me accomplish anything and it was actually ripping my focus away from whatever I was doing.

So I made a decision. I purposely check my email only three times a day now: when I’m at home in the morning, around lunch time, and later in the afternoon. At first I was a bit afraid to check my mail so infrequently. Many questions ran through my mind: what if I miss an important email? What if my advisor tries to contact me? How will I know if some event changes? The anxiety I felt from not knowing this information was almost too much.

I did this for a few days and slowly came to the realization that the mail that was waiting for me in my inbox wasn’t so important that it needed immediate attention. Even messages from my advisor weren’t so urgent. The timing of some events did change, but it didn’t affect me within the time periods that I wasn’t checking my mail. I relied on my fellow lab mates to alert me to any really important changes. I pushed the onus of staying on top of recent information to other people. And you know what happened? Nothing. I didn’t miss anything important and I increased my focus while being more productive. Messages that I might have thought were urgent, really weren’t and actually benefitted from taking a little time. By taking time to reply some emails, I began to indicate to others that my time is important and intrusions into my time should be minimized.

The goal of this is to not only minimize your distractions during the day, but also to get people to respect your time and attention. I could take this exercise a step further and create auto-responders that let others know that I’m not checking email but a few times a day. I could direct them to my cell phone if they really need to get a hold of me. Most emails probably aren’t that urgent and it might make people think for a moment before they send off a message. I haven’t gone so far as to create an auto-responder like this, but I am contemplating it.

I recommend you try this for one week. Check your mail only three times per day and test your fears about missing a message. See if there really was something that needed your immediate attention, or if you just inflated the urgency of a message. Make a note of how often you feel the urge to check your mail. If you’re like me, it was probably 3-4 times per hour. When you finally do check your messages during your allotted time, be honest with yourself and see if any of those messages would have benefited from being answered earlier. Chances are they wouldn’t, and because of you didn’t waste time checking, you are able to spend that time wisely and focus on your research.

Email can be a great tool for communication, but it is very easy to allow it to overcome your life. Put email back in its place and get back to doing the things you want/need to be doing. Don’t waste your time checking unimportant messages and train those around you to respect your time and attention. Your time is the most important thing you have as a graduate student, so don’t let others waste it!

Please feel free to tell me what you think in the comments! Also, if you like what you’ve been reading here, why not sign up at the top of the page to receive emails every time I make a new post. Thank you for reading!

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Written by Taylor M.

February 1, 2011 at 11:44 am

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