Stress Less Habit: Checking Email ‘x’ Times a Day

It’s a new year and I’ll be honest, it’s been off to a hectic start in our household. December 31st my son developed a cough. I thought nothing major of it until the next morning, when on New Year’s Day it was hoarse and rough. So, we did an online COVID assessment, and sure enough we needed to get a test. Big thanks to the Island Health as they got him tested that morning. As I record this, we are still waiting on his results, but given that it’s already improving I’m confident he’s fine. 

It does mean a return to civilization, or daycare in our case, is halted until then, but we’re figuring it out as we go.

This year I’m recommitting myself to the podcast. The winter of 2020 brought so many changes for our family with a new job for me, new province, new temporary home, new daycare, etc., so I appreciate your patience as I figure out my new normal.

What I know for sure, Oprah-style, is that I really enjoy creating this podcast. I enjoy it even more so when I hear back from you lovely listeners. I always love hearing what resonates the most for you, so if something is feeling like it’s hitting home, please let me know. You can message me on Instagram @stresslessladies or you can also drop me a line at victoria@stresslessladies.com 

Okay, so today, today is me getting back on the Stress Less Habits train. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, earlier in 2020 I kicked off the Stress Less Habits challenge. In a nutshell, so much of our stress comes down to habits that we have which either serve us or break us down. Many of the coping mechanisms you use are habits, right? For instance, I grew up with the habit of when I was feeling down, sad, insecure, I would eat. It’s still something that comes up for me that I have to work very hard to rewire. Rewiring it is a habit! We need to experiment with new strategies to figure out what will or won’t work for us, because no two people are wired quite the same. 

So, if you go to stresslesshabits.com you can sign up for the challenge. This month it’s all about setting a specific number of times you will check your emails and/or your social media per day. Woof. I’m starting the year off big!!

The majority of North Americans are checking their phones 160 times a day. If you have an iPhone, right now you can go in and see what your screen time usage is, how many times you’re picking it up and logging in. It’s sobering. So much so that what many of us end up doing is ignoring that number altogether, move into denial and therefore do nothing about it. 

First off, why is it important to bring this number down? Well, short answer, it’s not important unless it matters to you. Here’s why it’s important to ME to bring this number down. The more times I’m checking my phone, the more it becomes a habit and the more I’m fragmenting my attention. I remember as a kid, or frankly even in university, having a great attention span. I could do an activity for ages. I could focus. I could get in the zone. Not unsurprisingly, once smartphones entered my life and social media really kicked off, my attention span dwindled. It feels incredibly challenging to focus on one activity at a time. And I hear this from clients often – it’s hard to do one thing and complete that thing before getting distracted.

So that’s why it’s important to me. I want more clarity, focus and calm. I don’t want to feel like a dog watching squirrels in the park. So first and foremost figure out why this matters to you, IF it matters at all to you.

Next, how do we do this? What if you’ve got a job that requires you to be email responsive? Here are some key strategies to help you through the month.

#1 Break Down the Goal

Going cold turkey is hard for anyone and it honestly sets you up for failure. So, let’s look at the days left in the month and break it into 3 sections. Set a target for your number of email / social media checks a day. Then break that up evenly over your three sections. Work backwards. If the last week you want it to be checking your email only 4 times a day, but right now it’s about every thirty minutes during the day (16 times per work day), then we need to break that up. So week one we want to decrease it from 16 to 12. Week two from 12 to 8. Week three from 8 to 4. Or however your numbers break down. 

In a nutshell, trying to do it all at once won’t work, so give yourself more realistic targets to hit, get some quick wins, and it will show you what’s possible. 

Now you know where you’re going, how do you get there? 

You’ve got to set your environment up to serve you. This includes:

  • Turning off your notifications. 
  • Scheduling time to check your emails. 
  • Blocking time for deep work (aka time when you dive deep into one and only one project or task so that you can make real progress on it)
  • Physically removing the object (computer or phone)

Your environment matters. If you find something addictive, placing it right next to you is just cruel and unusual punishment. NOW, it becomes difficult when that object (your phone or computer) is how you do your work, but it’s not impossible. 

One of the easiest ways to start kicking this habit is to log out of your apps. In the case of emails, if you use Outlook at work, LOG OUT. Shut down the app, or at a minimum shut off the notifications so you don’t get a pop up while you’re in deep work mode. 

At my workplace we use email and Slack religiously. I’m well aware of the impact that these can have on my mental health. On one hand they’re very helpful for getting quick responses and bringing people together. On the other hand it’s like a gambler in the casino getting a dopamine hit every time you hear the ping. 

For those who are about to tell me you need to be available at the drop of the hat, I’m not going to argue with you. Perhaps you do, but I’m going to counter with this – if you need to be available for high stakes clients or emergencies, pick one form of communication for this. For instance, phone or text. You need to pick one, so that you’re not having to check your phone, your texts, your emails, your social media, your Slack 24/7. You need to be able to delineate between what’s important and what’s the daily deluge of emails. Okay? Good. 

Now, I’m going to ask you one last question – if you’re in a meeting, is it socially acceptable to be answering emails and social media? I’m guessing, probably not. So if it’s acceptable to not answer emails immediately during a two hour meeting, it’s equally acceptable to book a meeting with yourself to get your work done, then check emails after that. 

My goal that I’m working towards is to check my email and Slack no more than 4 times a day. I’ve gotten into some really bad habits over the past few months and it’s going to be a process to rewire it, but I know it’s possible. 

So, to recap.

  • Know why you want this to change 
  • Set a target, then break down weekly milestones
  • Set up your environment to help serve you
  • Remember that it is okay to not be instantly responsive. It’s not sustainable, and your mental health and PRODUCTIVITY matters

Everything I’ve said here can be repeated with social media, so if emails aren’t a challenge for you, work on what matters. 

Download the calendar at stresslesshabits.com for the month ahead to track your progress. 

Next week on the podcast we’re joined by an incredible guest – Cait Flanders. Cait is a return guest to the podcast and we’ll be diving into her book, Adventures in Opting Out and it’s a great conversation!

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