Kicking the E-mail Habit
If you’re like me, sending and answering e-mail is a big part of your freelance job — but it’s also a huge distraction. I recently figured that on a typical work day, I check e-mail every five minutes or so; that’s almost 50 times in a four-hour work period. And although I work — that is, have my butt in a chair — only two days per week, as far as my editors are concerned I work full-time. That means that even if I’m out taking my son to the park, I’m checking e-mail on my phone to make sure I can respond if a client needs me.
About a year ago I blocked the websites that suck the most of my time, and I just put the kibosh on Facebook and Twitter as well (at least for a while), but I still feel strangely compelled to check e-mail as much as I can. It’s a huge distraction from my work and my home life. The thing is, probably over 90 percent of the e-mails I get are not at all urgent. And I don’t know why I get so excited when an e-mail lands in my inbox, because it usually represents something else I need to do — respond to a request for advice, scan a contract, add something to a website, and so on. (Not that I mind these things at all — they’re all part of my job — but they’re not worth checking e-mail compulsively.)
I read once that the urge to check e-mail operates in the same way as the rat pressing on a lever to get pellets of food. When a rat presses on a lever and every time is rewarded with a pellet of food, if the food stops, after a short while the rat will give up. But if the rat receives food at random intervals when it presses the lever, it will go much longer without the reward of food before it gives up on pressing the lever. In the same way, 90 percent of the time an e-mail is not urgent or not exciting — but every once in a while, an assignment from a client will pop up in my inbox, and this reinforces the e-mail checking habit.
I told my co-author and buddy Diana about this, and she recommended I read The Soft Addiction Solution by Judith Wright. The author asserts that when you indulge in a “soft” addition like TV watching, Internet surfing, mindless eating, or shopping, you’re really trying (and failing) to fulfill a deeper need. After reading through most of the book and doing some of the exercises, I realized that I check e-mail because I’m looking for excitement, variety, and diversion. Checking e-mail is always a diversion, and 10 percent of the time it’s exciting as well! But it’s not the kind of excitement I really want. I dream of exploring our area and doing fun, educational activities with my family, but always feel like I “don’t have the time.”
Wright suggests that if you find real ways to meet your deeper needs, you’ll naturally start cutting down on your soft addictions. So this weekend, I made an effort to find fun things to do that work around our son’s naptime. We went on three hikes (our 20-month-old walked a half-mile on one of them, which is pretty good!), threw stones in the river, and went to the Currier Museum of Art. We also had friends over for dessert, and I changed my RSVP for a barbecue with people I don’t know well from a No to a Yes. And when we went to Borders during some down time, instead of gravitating towards the health magazines, I read Nuts & Volts magazine and learned how to power a small timer using five potted plants.
And guess what? I didn’t have the urge to check e-mail at all. In fact, I didn’t check until Monday morning, and then I processed all my e-mails in about 20 minutes. I felt so refreshed, awake, and even joyful after a weekend of trying new things.
However, while this approach works well on days off, what about on my work days? I have fewer than eight hours while our son is at school two days per week, and during those hours I actually need to work. It’s not like I can go out when I crave excitement and explore the town. But instead of checking e-mail, perhaps I can go for a short walk, cook something different for lunch, or pick up a different magazine at the newsstand. And maybe if my need for excitement is met during my days off, I’ll be better at checking e-mail just three times per day on work days: Once in the morning, once at lunchtime, and once at the end of the work day. (I’ve tried this in the past and can’t seem to do it for more than one day.)
How about you: Is your e-mail habit taking over your life so that you can’t be truly present at work or in your life outside of work? Why do you think that is? Is there some deeper need that you’re trying to meet through compulsive e-mail checking? Have you tried any tactics for curbing the habit? [lf]