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Recently I attended a corporate training session about time management. The course was less a source of new ideas and more a reminder of good habits from early in my career that I’d dropped, like writing down weekly goals and daily prioritized tasks.

Much of the course focused on distractions from our most important work. Technology is a tricky thing: it does exactly what it’s told, sometimes with consequences contrary to the original intent. Email at work, for example, meant to make us more productive by reducing the delays in correspondence. It has done that, of course, to the extreme: most people spend each day in a state of partial distraction as new message notifications pop up on computer screens and mobile phones, dinging and flashing through meetings, and demolishing concentration. Instead of proactively tackling the most difficult and important projects, technology trained us to react to the most urgent requests.

So I decided to start an experiment. I treated work email like mail: reading and responding once per day, not letting it interrupt my work or meetings during “office hours.” Here are the specific steps I took:

  1. Blocked an hour of my calendar each day from 7:30am-8:30am to read and respond to email messages, and make a prioritized list of daily tasks. I support both the Inbox Zero and three.sentenc.es philosophies. Each Monday and Friday session is 30 minutes longer, so that I can reflect on what I achieved that week, reflect on lessons learned, and set objectives for the coming week.
  2. Shut down all the notification features of my desktop and email clients, so that I can choose when to check my email. I did make one exception: my mobile client has a VIP feature that allows notifications from certain contacts (e.g., the C-suite at my company) and domains (e.g., a key customer account). I use Nine Folders and other clients may have similar features.
  3. Added a note to my email signature reminding internal recipients that while I don’t monitor incoming email during office hours, I do maintain a “SLA” to read and respond within 24 hours. The signature also reminds them to contact me through another channel if their message is truly urgent. My company has at least three chat platforms, and the corporate directory lists my mobile phone number, so plenty of alternative digital channels exist.

The result? Simply put, success. I feel so much less frantic and distracted throughout the day. I’m present and participate throughout meetings. I start and end tasks at my desk without interruption. I often send emails during the day, e.g., when shipping off a deliverable to complete a task, but I suppress the urge to pour through my inbox until the morning. My attitude towards the daily task of inbox maintenance is somewhat childlike with anticipation–anything good today? A handful of my coworkers made supportive comments; no signs of snark or frustration. In weeks, no one has come after me, angrily demanding a response to an email they sent a few hours earlier.

This experiment reinforced that the heightened sense of urgency I attached to email messages, and the feelings of anxiety I felt towards being responsive to those messages, were entirely self-imposed. And therefore I had complete power to remove the anxiety by changing my attitude and my daily habits about my inbox. If you’ve felt the same, try the experiment and see if you can replicate my results. Please leave any comments or questions below.

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