How to have a crapload more time

NOTE: This is the fifth in a series of six 30-day trials I promised to do in 2011. Don’t get impatient if you just read the title and want to know how to have a crapload more time. I get to that at the end. What are you, anti-suspense? I’m trying to be a compelling writer here. 

When it first occurred to me to do some sort of an “unplugging from the internet” trial, my first thought was that it was a totally unworthy trial.

I mean, look at the string I have going here. For my first trial, I played with the essential biological need for sleep. My second trial was a radical change in diet. The third (releasing resistance) wasn’t terribly mind-blowing, but the fourth, on quasi-minimalism, was a hell of a thing and forced me to flat-out get rid of 310 of the things I owned.

So when I thought, “Maybe I’ll force myself to only check email once or twice a day,” I figured that I was being a huge pussy. I mean, there’s nothing to that. I’m not doing without the internet. I’m not doing without anything. I’m not forging a new skill or breaking a paradigm. I’m hardly being epic. I’m just… being slightly less neurotic.

But as time wore on and I thought about it more, I realized how afraid I was of actually doing this trial. I started to notice how often I pop into my office just to check my email. I realized how much time I spend distracting myself by opening gMail and closing it again, having accomplished nothing. When I’m out doing errands, it struck me just how often I pulled out my phone to check first one email account, then the other, then Twitter. And then, when everyone started having wet dreams about Google+, I added that to my set of browser tabs and to my phone too, despite the fact that I didn’t give a shit about it and still don’t. Why? Because it was one more thing to check in on, and one more way to distract myself.

I’ve heard theories about email and social media being addictive, and actually triggering an endorphin response in the brain. I have no idea if it’s true. But if it is, I’m no longer feeling the high. You know how they say that addicts eventually stop trying to get a rush from their drug of choice and instead have to use simply to feel normal? Yeah. I can relate to that.

As I started to think more and more about this “unworthy” trial, I saw how obvious it was that I use “checking in” as a way to deal with stress. Having a bad day? Check email more often, because email sometimes brings good news. Feeling beaten? Maybe there are some new @ replies on Twitter that will give me a hit of love. During periods of waiting, it gets even worse. For the past few weeks, I’ve been waiting to hear about something that really excites me. Each time I’d check email, I’d get a burst of anticipation followed by a little downer when nothing cool had arrived.

Checking email and social networks compulsively is, for me and I imagine for a lot of you, a way of willing something to happen. When I was waiting for my news, I thought on some level that the more often I checked in, the more I was helping it to happen faster. I’ve known people who get slow on business, and so they will business to come their way by constantly checking to see if any is arriving.

We’re not stupid. We know that if some kind of good news is to come, it’s going to come no matter how often we check to see if it’s arrived. And if we’re awaiting possible bad news, we know that it’s going to come whether we know it the second it’s knowable or not. But that’s not how we act. We act like rats pressing buttons in a laboratory, to get a reward.

This trial may not sound impressive, but it scares the bejesus out of me, and I seriously wonder if I can do it.

Some people try to quit smoking. This… this technology… is my cigarette.

The plan

I’ve decided that starting next Monday and continuing through September 8, I’m going to only check email and social networks twice a day. (August 8 is the day that my assistant Amy comes back from vacation, and I’ll be able to let go more easily if I know someone is kind of keeping an eye on things.)

In the meantime, I’m making preparations. What are my fears and neuroses, and how can I address them? How can I make sure I don’t cheat? How will I make sure that the right things get done at the right times?

Here’s some of the thoughts I’ve come up with:

Q: Will less work get done?

A: No way. I’m sure that much, much more will get done. The excess time I spend answering emails and dealing with email stuff doesn’t make my business better or make profits richer any more than looking at your car’s gas gauge makes the tank fuller. It’s busywork in the truest sense of the term. It distracts me from writing and doing other important things.

 

Q: Will my service levels and communications suffer?

A: I seriously doubt it. This is a sad world if someone who emails me with even a relatively pressing matter can’t wait a few hours for a response. And let’s not forget that my old habits didn’t have me answering emails in a timely way anyway. “Hard” emails still sat in my inbox for days. All I’d do when checking in frequently was to handle the “easy” emails that required only a very fast (and usually unimportant) response and to weed out all of the junk. But somehow, deleting reminder emails and archiving things that didn’t require action felt good, as if I were cleaning up a mess on the floor. Chances are that I’ll respond slower to unimportant email, but will actually respond faster to the things that matter.

 

Q: How can I make sure I don’t miss anything vital?

A: Email has always been my home base. Because I check it so compulsively, I know I won’t miss anything that goes into it. Having reminders of timely events emailed to me is akin to having a jester jump on my desk and shout things at me. I wasn’t going to NOT see something in my email. Because of that, I’ve always counted on Google Calendar email notifications and Remember the Milk email reminders to keep me on top of things. So, to prep for this trial, I’ve removed super-timely reminders from Remember the Milk and placed them into Google Calendar. I’ve changed the calendar notifications from emails to pop-ups, so as long as I’m in front of my computer or phone, I’ll know when an appointment is coming up.

 

Q: How will I plan?

A: Charlie would kill me, but lately I’ve fallen into one of his pet peeves, which is to keep at least part of my to-do list in my inbox. Now, I do use a system that helps me stay on top of to-do’s, keeps my eyes on the prize, and keeps me very productive, but thanks to entropy, we all slip. I slipped into email. With things like my reminders going to email, I have in part relied on email access to keep me on task. So, I’m simply changing that and reinforcing my other planning methods, and simply being more conscious about what needs to be done, using methods that work offline.

 

Q: How can I make sure I won’t cheat?

A: I’m not a willful cheater at anything, so the only cheating I’d do will come out of habit. So, I’m putting some roadblocks between me and my habits. I have a gMail, Twitter, and Google+ icon on my phone’s desktop, so I’m removing them, meaning that I’ll have to dig through the applications to check any of the three — something I hope will kick me in the teeth with its obvious cheating nature. I need a web browser often for my work, because I work on my own site and on other people’s sites, as well as do other online stuff. So I’ve closed all of the gMail and social network tabs in Chrome, along with a few other time-wasters. (Remember this post? The Facebook “share” buttons across the internet seem to be broken, so if you want to know how many times something has been shared, there’s a URL you can use to check it manually. That post has been a major sharing whore, and I’m obsessed with the numbers. As of yesterday, it had been shared on Facebook almost 2300 times. Leaving that tab open is an invitation to refresh every time I go online for anything. Ditto several affiliate tracking consoles I like to refresh often in an effort to magically make more commissions appear.)

The rules

Here’s the way this is going to go down:

1. Twice (and only twice) each day, I’m going to check and respond to and/or deal with email. This will happen at approximately 10am and 5pm.

2. I will not check email first thing in the morning. I usually get up at 6am, so this means that I’ll put in 2-3 hours of solid “important” work before checking email and then will take some time to do my morning stuff and play with the kids. The “no first-thing email” rule trumps the rough email-checking schedule. EX: If I sleep in until 10 for some reason, email has to wait until noon or later.

3. Email-checking is email-checking. If I check it on my phone at a red light in the car, that’s my check, and I can’t then do email on my laptop when I get home. The one exception to this rule is if I know I have a drive ahead and want to respond to emails using this awesome but sometimes hilarious service I’ve started using called Voice on the Go. Using VotG requires a few minutes of pre-screening and prep to ensure that I’m not listening to receipts or blog comments during my whole drive. In that case, I’ll allow myself just those few minutes on my laptop before my drive, and the drive and voice transcriptions are my actual check.

4. I’m going to tentatively allow myself to post to social media from my phone only. Because this could be a slippery slope, I may yank this one if it becomes a problem, but for now I’m going to let myself tweet and post to Facebook from my phone pretty much whenever as long as I don’t check my replies on either. The reason for this is because social media is at least a little asynchronous, meaning that I’m unlikely to ever talk to anyone if I only use it twice a day. I’d tweet and someone would reply 5 minutes later, but I wouldn’t see the reply until half a day later. And you know Twitter… when someone responds to an hours-old tweet, hell opens up or something. It’s odd. But I’m only doing this from my phone. Having a browser tab open is too dangerous.

5. I’ve told (or will tell) the people who may legitimately need to get ahold of me in a timely manner to call or text me rather than emailing. There’s very little that can’t wait a handful of hours, but both Amy and Jess often need to ask me something or let me know something that shouldn’t wait. Also, because I’m asking Amy to keep a closer eye on my email than normal, she can let me know of anything red-hot that I might miss… not that there’s likely to be anything that red-hot.

That’s it. Those are the rules of the game.

The challenge

I’d like to invite you to do this with me (as long as you’re not Amy!)

If you’re reading this blog, then chances are excellent that you’re a modern, electronically connected person. Few casual internet users read blogs, and even fewer read nichey, sweary blogs like this one. I’d bet that you have played with Twitter or are possibly on there all the time. I’d bet you’re on Facebook. I’d bet that you have an email account you actually use, that people know to reach you at, and that you keep a close eye on. I’d bet, in short, that you do some of the compulsive stuff I do, too.

Once I really started paying attention to my email and social media habits, I realized how much time I waste DOING NOTHING. I’m not working; it just seems like I’m working. I’m not accomplishing anything at my desk; I’m just sitting at my desk. Once I really started analyzing my habits, I realized that I never do something (and especially not anything important) from A to Z without stopping or being interrupted. I realized that even though I’ve always thought of myself as an easy-going, relaxed person, that my ability to truly relax had atrophied horribly. The other day, I was sitting at Barnes & Noble, reading something that had nothing whatsoever to do with work. It was, simply put, pure pleasure reading. And even after thinking through all of the above — even after deciding that I’m going to do this trial and I’m going to do it now — I was unable to leave my phone in my pocket or on the table for more than 10 minutes. I’m not at all kidding.

That bothers me. That bothers me a lot.

We spend so much of our time nowadays in anticipation, waiting for the next thing to happen. We need to be entertained all the time, so when things are quiet, we need to manufacture tasks. Check email. Post on Twitter. Sometimes it matters, but usually it doesn’t. The way I do it, probably 10% of it matters. The rest is just lost time.

And here’s something else.

Today, just to try it out, I’ve followed this schedule. I got up at 6, did some important writing, and didn’t check email or my social networks until 10. After I’d finished, I’ve made myself wait to check in again. It’s now 4:30, and when I finish this post, I’ll check email again.

What did I experience?

Well, I got a hell of a lot of important stuff done. But I also watched some nature shows with my son, did some reading, bought some presents for people, played The Sims, and had two leisurely meals with my family.

I realized: All that pretense and effort to feel busy was robbing me of HUGE amounts of time that I didn’t know I had.

I was totally out of sorts today… but in a good way. I kept wanting to check email, to see if there was more stuff I could add to my to-do list, but I couldn’t. So, I… well, hell, might as well write that thing I’ve been wanting to write. And when I was done, I’d want to check email, but I couldn’t. So, hell, I guess I can do this other thing. I guess I can read with Austin. It doesn’t seem right, but I guess I can play video games.

I’d trained myself to think that if I was pretending to work, that I was working. But the only thing that was being done was that I was throwing away all of my time.

Try saving that time, just to see what it’s like. Who knows? You might like it.


Comments

  1. Jeff says:

    One of the best changes I made was to stop checking email first thing in the morning. I became much more productive in the morning and it carried forward into the afternoon. Once you get on a roll, it just keeps going. Now, I check email right before I eat lunch and at the end of my “work” day.

    It’ll be interesting to read about your results. Good luck!

    • Johnny says:

      Yeah, it was pretty disturbing to realize that I never complete anything from start to finish without in someway distracting myself. This should be much more interesting.

  2. I totally need to stop checking email first thing in the morning. It’s so ridiculously useless. And then I get sucked in and end up still in my pajamas at 2pm. LOL.

    I just hired a site manager (she’s my version of your Amy) and it’s AWESOME. She handles comment moderation, random/general emails, schedules/tweets links to oldies but goodies on my site and more. I already have more time and I might just follow along with you to increase that. 🙂

    Thanks, Johnny!
    Heather

  3. My biggest problem was answering the phone. I’d end up getting sucked into a conversation that I didn’t want to get into and it would take up lots of time. Time that could be better spent. I now only check my phone twice a day. The rest of the day – the ringer is off. Made my life a lot better. I may have to try this with email. Wonder if I can refrain from checking it first thing in the morning?

    • Johnny says:

      Well, having done only one day of this, I do have to say that not checking e-mail first thing in the morning seems to be one of the most important things. It gets you doing things that are important, rather than just the urgent crap that cropped up overnight.

  4. Emily Rose says:

    I’ve already started turning off my ringer on my phone (because my sleep hours are not everyone else’s sleep hours) and I was sick of getting called in the middle of a good dream and then having a shitty day for not getting good sleep. It also serves to turn of my phones sync for most of the day and to keep it on vibrate (doesnt hurt that my loud speaker doesnt work anymore).

    Another thing that is helping, I opened a separate email account ONLY for newsletters and blog updates. That way I am not inundated with emails all hours of the day and night and go read all my updates one time a day, and its usually at night after work stuff is settled down. I know people think having more e-mail accounts is a hassle, but I have alot of them and use them like folders. Certain things go into that email account and other things into that one, family into that one.. etc. Someone told me to use the folders and I honestly tried and it didn’t work for me very well, I was still getting too many emails and needed them more organized – so separate accounts is perfect for it.

    Good Luck with your self-challenge Johnny!

    • Johnny says:

      I happy that I’ve never used the notification feature for new e-mail on my phone. I don’t know how people stay sane when they do that. Every time an e-mail comes in, your phone beeps, and most people deal with it right then and there no matter what. That’s a good way to go nuts.

  5. Shanna Mann says:

    Hmmm. I really should. I know I should. But goddamn… it’ll hurt. I have all this email correspondence to keep up with! Relationships! Contacts!

    Ok, fine. Do you have a limit for how long you spend IN email? Because if I check my email, read what needs to be read, respond what needs to be responded to and delete everything else, I’ll be there at least an hour, probably two.

    • Johnny says:

      No. It takes whatever time it takes, and that’s all there is to it. There’s no way it’s going to take more time than it did before. The other thing I’ve noticed already is that when I’m not addicted to checking e-mail, I go through it faster because I don’t want to make it last like I used to. Does that make sense?

  6. I’ve tried this several times. My difficulty is not putting something in place of email/social media that gives me the same emotional reward. I have a tendency to go to a (cough) celebrity site to find out the latest on such great and estimable people as Paris Hilton, et al in the absence of Facebook.

    I’ve just started a primal/paleo challenge and don’t want to derail that because I know this will be hard but I’ll give it a think and see if I can do it.

    • Oh, and I am in the final lessons of your Tao of Awesome – I guess I’ll need to add this to my weekly plan, right? 😉

    • Johnny says:

      Yeah, but I think that’s kind of the whole point. Once you’re not filling your time with useless stuff, no matter what that useless stuff may be, suddenly you’ll find yourself with extra time. At first you won’t know how to spend that time, but then you’ll find you have time for all sorts of things you never thought you had time for before. That’s the impression I get, anyway. Besides, it’s actually fits in perfectly with the Tao of awesome… finding time for things that matter.

  7. laura says:

    I like it. Im going to try it.

  8. Hey JBT,
    I like what you are doing here. I never spend more than 10 minutes a day on social media sites and I generally check e-mail twice a day now.

    It’s all about being efficient and focusing on what is important. I like what you said about needing to be entertained all of the time.

    I know that bills have to be paid and we need income, but being able to spend time with family and relax is more important. We won’t get to the end of our lives and say, “gee I wish I would have spent more time checking e-mail and hanging out on social media sites.”

  9. Linda says:

    Oh, I love #2…that’s a really delicious way to accomplish a solid couple hours work in the morning. Now this is gonna be difficult initially as I sleep with the CrackBerry under my pillow. Yes, I know, totally dumbass (btw, I wonder how many of your readers are in bed with the PDA, too?:P).

    It’s on, baby!

    Thanks for the awesome challenge. I love games!

  10. Dr. Pete says:

    I quit social media for 30 days cold turkey back in May (although kept up my bad email habits), and it did me a world of good. I can’t give it up forever, because it’s essential to my business, and it does have real value, but stepping back gave me perspective.

    I also got a TON done – I mean, a scary amount. Enough that I almost don’t want to admit it, because of what that says about distraction and just how absolutely shit we are at multi-tasking.

    Look forward to reading your updates. My recap is here, if you’re interested:

    http://www.30go30.com/blog/30-days-without-social-media

    • Johnny says:

      That’s both amazing and scary. But I really like what you said about it giving you perspective. That’s what I think it’s all about. We take for granted anymore that these things are things that we have to do, and it’s just not true. It’s like I said earlier about something like this being like a fast. You do without something for a while and you suddenly know what it really means… what it definitely doesn’t mean.

      • Dr. Pete says:

        I think that’s true about a lot of things. So many people want it to be black-and-white – TV is bad, the internet is bad, green is good, church is good, whatever. You can quit all the “bad” things and do all the “good” things and still be an asshole, in my experience. Social media has real value and I’ve made amazing, real-world relationships through it. It can also be a giant, gaping hole my time and motivation fall into. It’s a balancing act, and that means struggling with it and finding your own middle ground.

  11. Erica says:

    Just watch out…you may like it too much! I tend to unplug a lot more easily than I stay in touch (at least for social media and blog stuff…email is a little easier to stay on top of). I like to call it falling off the face of the internet, and I do it regularly, unless I really work hard to stay in touch with online things. Good luck with the trial; it’s a juggle to balance the online and offline worlds!

  12. This is so exactly the shake that I needed. I was feeling quite pleased with myself on how I thought I dealt with the email demon. I respond to important emails twice a day, and only twice a week do I go through all the other stuff.

    BUT, just like you I constantly check in to see if new emails have come in. I don’t do anything with the ones that catch my eye, I just read them. So my system is really only halfway there. I’m going to join you Johnny and see if I can kick this nasty habit. Thanks for the wakeup call!

  13. Oooooh, I am frighteningly compulsive about checking email and Twitter. Luckily my somewhatsmartphone doesn’t make it all that easy, so I really have to be desperate to check when I’m away from my computer. But when I’m at my desk, oy.

    I HAVE been somewhat disciplined in not checking email until I have done my writing for the morning, but after that I am, like you, really good at fooling myself about being busy. I have tried a couple of times to do the “I’m only going to check email and Twitter 2x a day” thing, but the challenge is actually CLOSING them once I’m done with the first pass.

    I’ll join you in this challenge. Thanks!

  14. Ha! I feel totally called out. Thanks for making me realize how freakin’ ridiculous it is to be addicted to the high of something magically appearing in my inbox. Failure to see the connection has kept me chained. Yeah, I’m busting these chains with a fresh awareness and attitude!

  15. Funny that you wrote this one just as I’m coming back from an unplugged vacation! AND funny that you gave everyone else permission to try it but me 🙂
    Poop.

  16. Mike Carlson says:

    OK I’m late to the party; I was busy checking emails.

    I’m totally on board. You have an uncanny ability to peer into heads and make it personal rather than being lectured at.

    Between facebook, twitter and email (have barely started with G+) I would not even want to guess how much time is eaten up.

  17. Just got through reading this and your most recent post. I think I’m going to challenge myself to do two things:

    1.) Wake up earlier – 6:00am-ish.
    2.) Check email and social networks fewer times a day. This includes of course disconnected them from my mobile device (I suspect this last part a tad bit challenging).

    These days I do most of my writing at night, then I’ll edit and publish my post first thing in the morning. I know I’d get more writing done if I just completely ignored social networks and checked email less frequently.

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