Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Email Intervention

Jonathan Franzen has said "it's doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction." Now, I probably shouldn't take advice from a guy who got upset when his book was selected by Oprah's book club, but he has a point. It's no secret that the Internet and email are the biggest time wasters in modern history.

I've always prided myself on being email efficient. I'm a strong believer in batching messages. Have you ever noticed how, when returning from vacation, you can go through a hundred emails in 30 minutes, when normally it would take an entire day? That's batching. That's sorting by subject and eliminating, chunking up, ignoring. I try to do this in my normal workday -- vacation or not. I never check email just to "see what's going on" and then leave the messages in my inbox to respond to later. I have a saying: you don't check email, you respond to email.

I scoff at those people who check their blackberries every two seconds. I cringe when I hear colleagues say that they check their email before they roll out of bed, and before retiring each night (all that's going to accomplish is interrupting your sleep and putting you in a bad mood first thing in the morning). And I'm incredulous when someone, in 2010, still has his or her computer set up to play a sound when a new email arrives, or  -- even worse -- a window that pops up saying, "You have a new email message, would you like to read it?" (okay, maybe that one went away in 1999, but you know what I mean).

So I try to follow these same principles with my personal email as well. And, for the most part, I've succeeded. But it all went out the window when I started querying agents.

When you have query letters out there, every email could be a request for your manuscript, an offer of representation. Even a rejection is better than email silence. I also get an automatic email every time someone comments on my blog, which excites me (hint, hint).

Not only is this constant checking extremely inefficient, but it sets me up for continuous disappointment thought the day: every time a new message turns out to be a LinkedIn update or something, a little part of me dies. Then it's like I have to fill the void somehow. So, since I'm already on my Google homepage with links to everything in the world, I end up checking an agent blog, exploring why the stock market is down, or watching those acrobatic cat videos on YouTube. More time wasted.

I've tried to set limits. When I was on a recent vacation, I had my phone with me most of the time. I didn't check my work email once, no problem. But I kept checking my personal Gmail. So I disabled that account on my phone. And then re-enabled it ten minutes later.

I have a problem. I need an intervention. I've considered some drastic measures:

  • Changing my Gmail password to an obscure set of numbers and putting the code in a safety deposit box.
  • Deleting Internet Explorer from my computer.
  • Dropping my iPhone into San Francisco Bay.

How about you? Have you found any email/internet-limiting strategies that actually work?


  1. I once set a rule that I wouldn't check or look at Facebook EVER while at work. That lasted for about 8 months. Now I constantly have it up on my desktop (ugh!) And now that I'm selling on Etsy, I too have this crazy anxiety that any gmail email I might get, might alert me of a sale! So I constantly check and keep that email account open on my desktop at work.

    I think I'm going to set a rule that I can only open Mozilla (FB and gmail) for 5 minutes on my work computer right before lunch, and maybe once in the afternoon. We'll see...I'll let you know how that goes.

  2. Oh, and I forgot to mention my new addiction to Google Analytics, so I can track the traffic on my Etsy account. That is probably taking the cake over gmail and FB these days...talk about addictive!

  3. Maybe you should just focus on becoming better at multi-tasking instead of all these rules you impose on yourself for checking email, facebook, etc. I always have gmail open (am usually chatting) and facebook and I still manage to get all my work done and leave work way before you. Peep!

  4. Oh dear, I'm going to disappoint you today. I emailed you, and I'm not an agent. Sorry.

    I can't help you with how to limit your email checking because I'm constantly online for my job. But I do have to set limits with Facebook and Twitter, so I schedule brief "rewards" times when I can browse them after I finish a particular task. I go through periods of love/hate with Facebook, so right now it's not much of a temptation. But I'm new to Twitter, so that one's more of a lure. And since by nature it's more immediate, checking it often seems more justified. But my Google feed is absolutely the worst. Can't resist that one at all. And one blog leads to another . . .

    Right now, during the querying process, you've got good reason to check your mail obsessively, so I wouldn't worry about it. But if you feel you must do something, I agree with Brenda—just set a schedule for yourself, either at set times or as I do, between "must-dos" at work. And good luck.

  5. Brenda - I tried giving myself set times to check my gmail, e.g. once in the morning and once after lunch. That regimen lasted about 12 seconds.

  6. And I admit I'm not good at multitasking. My wife knows I can't do two things at once - like drive AND follow directions.

  7. I'd say you're totally hosed at work so cut yourself some slack and be as neurotic as you need to be during this time. But when it's time to get writing done, this is my trick. I leave my phone in the car and write in coffee shops that don't have free wireless. A friend of mine uses this service: http://macfreedom.com/ For a few bucks it disables your internet for a set amount of time.

  8. I just listened to a podcast of the August 24th 2010 Fresh Air episode where Terry Gross (actually I think it was the stand-in guy) interviewed this Pulitzer prize winning journalist who went on a retreat to the 4 corners area with 5 neuroscientists. Long story short, one of the things I learned was that it is IMPOSSIBLE to multi-task. Humans, apparently (I did not know this) are literally incapable of concentrating on more than one thing at a time. True multi-tasking...where someone does more than one thing at a time...is actually a trick that the mind plays on us to make us THINK we are concentrating on more than one thing simultaneously. In reality, the mind, in the case of multi-tasking, switches rapidly between two or more tasks to simulate a continuous flow. However, the researchers have found that any of the tasks that you are trying to multi-task are significantly reduced in their efficiency over just performing a single task.
    Phew...that was a mouthful. Anyway, I have a real problem with checking email ALL THE TIME. And, in the same podcast they talked about the neurological science behind just that! Unfortunately I can't remember the scientific name they came up with to describe the phenomenon, but it goes like this. If you don't know when an incentive is going to pop up, but you know that you can rely on a relatively frequent random occurrence of said incentive by doing a certain task, then it is human nature to perform that task over and over again to get the small adrenaline pulses that come from knowing that the incentive may be there.

  9. http://www.npr.org/templates/rundowns/rundown.php?prgId=13&prgDate=08-24-2010