Are You Drowning in Emails?

10/21/2010 01:06 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Let's walk through the average day of an office worker, let's name him (or her) Chris.

Chris wakes up in the morning and goes through the ordinary morning routine: washes, has breakfast, possibly goes to the gym if he is a morning person, then drives or takes public transport to the office. He arrives at the office and opens his computer; perhaps, if he has time, he scrolls through today's paper or, more likely, the daily e-news digest, then starts working on the project or assignment that he has chosen to dedicate his energies to throughout that day, or that his supervisors or his clients have asked him to address.

Does this sound familiar? It seems to describe the average day of most people who have an office job. And yet, if you can relate to this narrative, you may feel that your own typical day involves much more than this skeletal, simplistic, almost ideal description.

Let's try again.

Chris wakes up in the morning, and the first thing he does is check his BlackBerry. He has around thirty or more new e-mails: overseas clients and business partners have been working throughout his night and have processed a number of issues on which they need feedback.

The mobile Facebook application also flashes with a couple new messages and friends invites. Outlook reminds him that a client lunch and a meeting at ten are scheduled for today. He takes care of all the e-mails, responding to each one, then rushes through his routine, has breakfast, and goes to work. Typically, he either arrives at work late, or the time spent answering those thirty e-mails will have robbed him of the time to read the paper or have a chat with his spouse. By the time he gets to the office, at least half the people copied in the thirty e-mails to which he has responded will have replied back with their thoughts. Three or four people are copied in one e-mail, so he receives sixty e-mails back. Most of the replies don't add any new information, insight, or instruction; rather, they just expand on previous e-mails in a disorganized, entropic way. However, as soon as Chris opens his computer, he feels compelled to reply right away. Never mind that replying takes another sixty minutes and prevents him from kicking off on the actual work he has planned to do that day.

Chris feels that he has accomplished little and that for some reason, powers beyond his control have eaten up all his time.

Does this sound more familiar? Most readers, even those who do not work in a corporate office, will be able to relate to similar situations, when they have been tangled in the web of information production and exchange that surrounds us in every form.

An uncontrolled use of technology tools can completely destroy what I call "mental bandwidth", the capacity to think, be creative, see perspective. Technology tools prompt us to react immediately and mindlessly literally eating up that space in your mind. This in turn creates an increased sense of stress and feeling that there is not enough time in your life.

How do you break free of this circle?

You can start viewing time in a different way: instead of perceiving time as slots that need to be filled with maximum efficiency (which usually turns into doing more of everything, which means responding to everything, even when it would be more productive to do less) you can start to view time as an allocation of attention. Attention, especially in the digital age, is your most important resource. Recognizing that how you allocate your attention drives how you allocate your time you will start perceiving time differently: every moment of your life is not an empty clicking clock to be chased, it is instead the choice you make at that very moment of what to dedicate your attention. And the sum of those choices is what will shape the content of your life. Managing your technology tools is the first step in regaining control of that attention.

Here are a few practical tips you can take to start reclaiming your time:

  • Make the decision to turn off your blackberry, iphone, computers and television at certain specific hours of the day.
  • Take a 1 hour break from emails before going to bed.
  • Do not look at emails first thing in the morning.
  • Move your blackberry (or iphone or other device) to a different room at certain times during the day. Especially, ensure it is not in your bedroom.
  • When you want to concentrate on task that involves digital information and get things done productively, print out the information and work on printed documents.
  • Avoid sending stream of consciousness emails. Wait until your thoughts are clear before writing.
  • Schedule your day so that it has a time slot for emergencies or "urgent" last minute things.
  • Schedule your own personal time in your calendar.