Up until recently, I received communication online in 10 different places.
In addition to getting messages through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and StumbleUpon, I got emails through six different email accounts. I have not always managed this ever-flowing stream of information in the most mindful and productive way.
Studies show we actually get a little endorphin rush when something new pops up in the inbox. It’s almost as if an email, direct message, or blog comment confirms that we’re important—that someone somewhere values us and needs our attention, expertise, or approval.
I’ll admit it: I enjoy seeing there’s a new comment on something I’ve written, and I love when someone sends me an email telling me how deeply Tiny Buddha has impacted them.
But I’m not a big fan of spending my whole day reacting to things popping up on my screen. Not when there are so many more efficient, fulfilling ways to spend my time.
Recently I’ve been making some changes to create a more mindful online experience, less dictated by other people’s requests and feedback.
If you also need a little help managing your stream, I recommend the following.
1. Close the accounts you don’t need and integrate the rest.
There’s no good reason for me to have multiple email addresses since I primarily use Gmail, so I closed a couple of my old accounts after sending a message to my contacts alerting them to the changes.
I still have three email accounts, however, because I use one for personal use, one for Tiny Buddha, and one for a contract employer. If you use Gmail as your main email provider, as I do, you can use Gmail Fetcher to integrate your inboxes into one account.
2. Only use alerts for people whose messages require immediate response. (I.E.: your boss)
It’s all good and well to say, “Only check emails once a day,” but I realize that might not be an option if you don’t work for yourself.
If you need to be responsive to superiors, coworkers, and clients, I suggest changing the way you receive email notifications. Mail Alert seems to be a great solution, offering customization for different authors, subjects, and keywords.
It also allows you to deal with messages right in the alert box, instead of having to open your email. It costs $6.95 for a single license. Note that I am not a paid advertiser for Mail Alert; I just think it might be a solid service. I’m sure there are similar free solutions—if you know of any please add them in the comments!
3. Check email at set times if that’s a viable option.
If you work independently, like I do, and rarely receive urgent messages, it would be helpful to develop a little email discipline, only checking email at set times in the morning and afternoon.
I’ll admit this is a hard one for me. I like to see emails as they come in and then deal with them right away. But in the end, I far prefer having control over my time and better access to flow—that state of full absorption in an activity when you’re most creative and productive.
Research shows that when you “get in the zone,” it actually requires less brain activity, not more, allowing you to accomplish more with less energy. You also reap amazing emotional and spiritual benefits, since you allow yourself to fully enjoy your work within a focused, meditative experience.
4. Unsubscribe to emails you don’t regularly read.
It may seem simpler to delete an email than open it and unsubscribe; but when you factor how frequently you need to delete something, it’s more efficient to eliminate future deletions.
One way to make this easier would be to create an unsubscribe label/folder and route all emails you don’t want into it. Then after a week, you could set a time to unsubscribe to all of them all at once.
If you have email subscriptions you haven’t read in a while—including this one—it might be beneficial to add them to the folder. You can always visit the site as it fits in with your schedule.
5. Keep emails to 5 sentences or less.
A while back, I found the website called 5 sentences that suggests “a disciplined way to email.” For a while, I had their wording at the bottom of my email signature, directing readers to their site to explain why my emails were suddenly shorter.
I’ve since decided that if I want to save time for me, I should save time for people who contact me, too by not sending them to a third-party website. Now I have the following at the bottom of my signature:
*To keep email from taking over my life, I am keeping all my emails under 5 sentences. Thanks for understanding!
6. Eliminate social media messages where you can.
I have recently added in my Twitter bio, for @Lori_Deschene that I do not reply to DMs.
This might sound a little harsh considering some people may DM me without seeing my bio. However, if someone DMs me with something important and they don’t hear from me, I suspect they will go to my page to see if there is additional contact information. Full disclosure: I don’t get a ton of DMs these days because I responded to them at a snail’s pace for months.
7. Compress your social media updates.
Recently, I signed up for Nutshell Mail from Constant Contact. This compresses all your social media updates into one system, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, and MySpace (though I don’t maintain an active friendship with Tom anymore).
You can set it to send you emails 1–3 times a day, specifying the time(s) that works best for you, on whichever days of the week you choose. I chose Monday through Friday, once a day at 4:00. This way, I don’t have to think about social media messages until the end of the work day, and at that point I can address them all at once.
8. Get mindful about your breathing when reading email.
There have been studies about email apnea—our tendency to hold our breath or breathe shallowly while reading email, which can create mental stress and have adverse physical consequences.
I once read something by Thich Nhat Hanh that suggested we wait three rings before answering the phone, and use each ring to breathe deeply and mindfully. This way, we greet the person with a sense of calm and focus.
I’ve recently been doing the same thing with email. I focus on my breath while reading to ensure I’m breathing fully and mindfully; and then I take two complete breaths before clicking on respond. It may take a little extra time, but maintaining a peaceful mind is always an efficient choice.
9. Set email boundaries.
One of the drawbacks of technology is that it’s created a sense of urgency—an expectation of constant connection and instant communication. Someone sends and email or a text and they expect an instantaneous response. Or in some cases, we assume they expect that, and then stress ourselves out.
I realize that to some extent, this might be unavoidable in work, but we can make a significant difference by exercising a little control where we can.
I have recently been much slower in answering personal emails that are not urgent, and I’ve found that people understand. They’re busy, too—they don’t need to know right this second how things are going with my book.
If someone tends to send me tons of emails throughout the week, I ask them to just call me once instead. It’s a lot easier to catch up with a friend once on the phone than it is through a lengthy back-and-forth chain of emails.
I realize the irony of writing a long blog post that explains how to spend less time online. But that’s not entirely my point. I don’t know about you, but I am happiest when I spend my online time creating, reading other people’s writing, and engaging around content that matters to me.
It’s a lot easier for us to use the web in a meaningful way when we learn to respond to emails at a manageable pace, on our own terms.
Photo by Pink Sherbert Photography