Back in the day when I was working as a full-time employee, I remember a time when my Director asked me to present an overview of our Company to the Department of Transportation. I didn't know much about the DOT, but they were very interested in understanding our business and I knew it would take a bit of research for me to do a good job.
I wanted to better understand our mutual interests and most importantly, I didn't want to waste their time. It was cool being asked to represent the Company; they obviously trusted me to send the right message, but I was a bit intimidated.
Instead of digging right in and making the best use of my time, I found myself creatively avoiding what needed to get done. It’s not like the assignment was difficult, but there was an unknown factor that consciously or unconsciously made me feel uncomfortable. As a result, I made a decision to get busy…but I didn’t get productive.
Busy (but NOT Productive)
I found myself hovering over email almost obsessively. I would start to work on the presentation or pick up the phone to call a colleague about the content, when I’d see a message come in that required my attention. It didn’t necessarily require my attention at that exact moment but it was the path of least resistance...so I clicked.
I went back and forth between email and whatever it was I was working on for hours. Each time I pulled myself away from email to get back to work, it felt like starting from scratch again. After repeating this process multiple times per day, I would have trouble remembering the last thing I did before being distracted by my inbox.
The time flew by, and before I knew it the day was gone. I felt busy as ever but I didn’t have anything to show for it.
When people work to the point of burn out, and an understandable practice is to veg out, watch TV, or doing something mindless in order to recharge. Email is a great mindless activity if you need to veg out at work.
The problem for me is that I wasn’t burned out!
I was at the peak of my game, first thing in the morning. Yet, wasting all my energy on the mindless abyss of clutter sitting in my email inbox, all because I had a slight fear of the task at hand. The natural reaction was to procrastinate.
Do you use email as a stall tactic?
Sometimes you don’t even know you’re doing it. I made some pretty unproductive decisions in my day; in fact, I remember completely losing control one day and spending over two hours crafting the perfect email response to a message that randomly popped into my life that day.
In absolute stealth mode, time had completely slipped away, never to be found again. At the end of that day I felt exhausted and unaccomplished, searching for a better way to work. I hate that good people feel the need to unknowingly take part in wasteful practices like this one and I don’t want it to happen to you.
A good starting point
...is to identify when you’re falling into this trap.
Here’s three ways to tell if you’re actually working, or just “hiding out” in your inbox to avoid something important, and what to do about it:
1 - You Didn’t Stick to the Plan
Emergency situations will arise that pull you away from your plan for the day, there’s no denying that. Yet, all too often, non-urgent tasks end up sucking away you’re valuable time for a given day. They’re like shiny objects that draw your attention away from your true goals for temporary, empty pleasure and fulfillment. You’re much more vulnerable to the adverse affects of these objects of your distraction when you know you need to work on something, but fear is holding you back. The only result of chasing the temporary pleasure is the pain of procrastination. What is that one thing you know you need to do today?
Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez calls these things his “Hit List,” - I love that! What’s on your Hit List? What’s going to change your day, your position, or your career that you fear doing? Write it down so you don’t forget! Deep down, you know what you need to being doing, but you don’t always consciously give it recognition.
After you write it down take the time to think about the next logical step, you need to make an attempt to get this thing done by setting a date to do this next logical step. Your target date and your next step is now in your daily plan, and much more within your reach.
You may or may not end up sticking to your plan; whether you do or don’t isn’t important. What is important is to document, or at least make a mental note, of the one or two things that most contributed to you not getting that task done, and then think about “why.”
If it’s not because of an emergency or inadequate planning, then your “why” will usually comes down to a fear of something - that's ok, because you’ve now learned something! In fact, if you wrote it down you now have a documented lesson learned; a primitive root cause analysis!
When we know the action AND we know the cause, we can develop solutions to get better. What is it you can do better to either:
- mitigate the risk of giving into this fear, -or-
- plan your day to minimize the chance of being exposed to that fear?
2 - You Don’t Feel Accomplished
You may subconsciously find yourself pecking away at your email. It’s such a mindless activity that time seems often disappears without you even recognizing it’s gone. You had all the intentions in the world of killing it at work today but now it’s 3PM, and you’re not sure how you’ve spent the last three hours after lunch. You also don’t feel accomplished, but exhausted.
If at the end of the day, you have nothing to show for it and you’re feeling like crap, think back to the trigger that got you there. If it was email, a good mitigation strategy is to start using a timer when you’re “working” on email. As soon as you open Outlook or MacMail start the clock and see how long you’re actually spending cranking away at messages.
See if you can keep this up consistently for one week. The more you do it, the more of a chance you’ll have of forming a good habit, and the less time you’ll find slipping away from you. The most valuable benefit from creating a good email habit is the recognition of when enough is enough.
Email will suck you away for life if you let it; but if YOU control it, rather than letting IT control you, you’ll have a much easier time of fighting the fear as well as preventing an unknowing mistake that will drive you away from a good day at work.
3 - It’s Eating Away at You
If email isn’t the best use of your time, you’re already letting yourself know. You have a burden on you that isn’t going away but you’re too busy living in the moment and convincing yourself that you don’t have time to work on it right now. Bull!
As humans, we’re impressively talented at creatively justifying our actions. We want to be the protagonist in our life stories; we want to shift the blame to someone else, but we can’t always do that. If we have the time to do something we know we should be doing, but we’re not taking the time to do it it’s going to bother you!
Listen to your gut and take some accountability for your actions. Listen to that little voice when it tells you to “keep Outlook closed,” or when it comments that perhaps this very moment “isn’t the best time to respond to that message about Friday night’s party,” etc.
In Closing - On Avoiding Something Important
Tim Ferriss says it’s worth tattooing this phrase on your forehead:
“The thing we fear the most is that which we ought to be doing most of.”
It’s true - the trick is finding strategies to cut through the noise and your own biased self justification. Hopefully these three tips get you at least off of email distractions and on the path towards increased productivity. I’d love to hear about what you’re afraid to get started on. What’s keeping you busy, but unproductive? For me, it’s creating a course to help people figure out the answer to this question! Please leave a comment and stay online for the remainder of this exciting blog series!
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