I'm currently reading David Levy's book, Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives, and doing the exercises recommended. The first exercise is called "Observing Email" and it instructs you to check email for a dedicated length of time (like 20 or 30 minutes), log observations you make, create personal guidelines from those observations, and then share what you learn, which is what I'm doing today.

Last week, I logged eight sessions across four days, which was over four hours of email time. I quite enjoyed logging my experience, especially during the first five sessions. I was less disciplined with ending my email checking in the last three sessions — I'd reach inbox zero and then keep email open instead of closing it and proceeding to another activity.

Here's a samplE of some of the observations I made:

  • Doing email feels like whack-a-mole.
  • Find myself in the middle of an urgent series of tasks: see something opportune, schedule it, inform the person of my commitment, repeat.
  • Feeling pressure to say yes to all the people that have requested my time.
  • When I dread the contents of an email, I want to postpone it/snooze it/do other things. 
  • I need a notepad beside me while I check email to write down things I need to remember so I stay in email.
  • Feeling trepidation at responding to one email and therefore the recipient knowing I'm available and needing to respond to their other emails. 
  • I am not at all paying attention to my body or posture.
  • Felt the desire to go to Facebook immediately after opening a message I was avoiding opening.

And here's a list of things I learned about myself:

  • I am in and out of my calendar a lot during email. It's hard to do email without it because many emails are about scheduling.
  • There are lots of things that can take me off task while in my inbox, especially newsletters and social updates that link to the internet.
  • Checking email can emotionally derail me.
  • Sometimes I dread email when the reality of my inbox is actually not dreadful.
  • I have a tendency to avoid emails that are long and complex and prefer to keep the ball in the air with shorter, more manageable email volleys.
  • Sometimes email involves using a number of different devices and websites.
  • Emails come in tides and waves. Sometimes they accumulate quickly, other times they seem to trickle in.
  • Email seems to be an emotionally "felt" experience for me, even though I have a hard time noticing my posture, breath, or physical senses. 

The exercise also instructs you to read over your observations and synthesize them into guidelines. For me, this was the most helpful part.

Here are the guidelines I came up with:

  1. My email craft* requires certain tools:
    • a good calendaring app that does not require me to exit email to schedule things
    • a notepad and pen for jotting down tasks so that I can stay in email instead of following up on every task right away
    • my mobile device handy for certain information needs (sometimes optional)
    • a mouse because I enjoy using one (sometimes optional)
  2. Email can be an emotionally volatile space. I must notice my emotional state before opening my inbox and agree to the likelihood it may be altered by what I find (otherwise, I should check email at a different time).
  3. To keep distractions at bay, I need to close my email once I've achieved inbox zero and re-open it with intention.
  4. When people or newsletters email me things I'd like to explore, make a note of it instead of exploring right away. Similarly, when people request I do something, it's okay to make a note to do it and then email them to say I'll get back to them later.
  5. Treat lengthy or complex emails (or emails I must write but don't exactly know how to) as I do anything else I'd typically avoid: get them out of the way first, using a pomodoro if necessary.

 

I found this exercise not only fun, but also enlightening. I recommend it and am already considering observing social media time using the same methods.


* A note about craft: Levy argues that we should consider our digital life a craft like we consider woodworking or playing a sport. That it requires practice, certain tools, and refinement. There's an entire chapter about this coming up, so I'll likely blog more about it later, but I love the idea.

 

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