I saw a recent lifestyle feature in Fast Company that talked about someone who had spent a long time trying to make their use of email more efficient and was now down to a well-controlled 90-minutes a day. Ninety minutes? That doesn't sound so controlled to me.
The feature describes how he spends a solid hour answering emails each morning and then a half-hour at the end of the day to wrap things up. But this led me to think, if ninety minutes is considered to be 'under control' then how many hours do regular people spend fighting their inbox each day?
For the sake of argument I would guess at doubling this super-efficient figure, but I found some statistics from the USA that suggested workers there spend 6.3 hours a day checking emails. Now add this to the two hours on social networks and you already have a full working day. What about adding the time spent swiping on Tinder? Half of all Tinder users are swiping at 4pm in the afternoon - perhaps taking a break from those work emails?
Surely all this activity is a disaster for productivity? How can the daily averages for email and social network use equal more than a regular day at the office? And all this phone activity can be deadly too. The most common cause of death today in the USA for teenagers is using a phone while driving - usually when messaging.
I'm a prolific user of various social networks and I need to manage a lot of emails from clients all over the world. But when I read these statistics suggesting that people are managing mails and social media for over 8 hours a day I'm pretty horrified. If that was me, I wouldn't get anything done at work each day. I'm a writer and I need concentration. I work best in the morning and by the afternoon my brain is often too fuzzy to create new words, but I can still manage my business administration and other less creative tasks.
I don't think my own working style is unique, but here are five ways in which I try to organise my day so that I'm not just on email or social networks all day:
- Don't use email to organise; it's not a very effective to-do list because it never ends and it's always changing. Use it to communicate with people, but make a separate to-do list using another app or even just an old fashioned pen and scrap of paper.
- One thing at a time; with notifications pinging all around this can be tough, but when you start focusing on finishing one task then hitting another there is an amazing contrast to the fog of trying to keep following your social networks and grappling three tasks at the same time.
- Be realistic; spread your work across the week or month. Don't load up your to-do list with everything that has to be done all as a target for today - it will never happen and you will feel bad reassigning tasks each day. Just be realistic about what can be done and when.
- Allow reward time; get that dopamine hit from Instagram now and then, but just do it as a reward because you completed something else. Telling yourself to ignore every network the entire day is unlikely to happen, but you can be slightly more controlled about it because those notifications are not going to vanish if you complete some work first.
- Escape the network; have a defined point where you reduce your online activity because the working day is over. With email it should ideally be completely over for the day, although social networks can be used just for fun. But don't go to a bar with your partner and both sit there at the same table staring at your phones - talk to someone real. Don't you hate seeing those couples who are together, but elsewhere?
I don't claim to be a lifestyle guru, but as someone who writes professionally and creates at least 1,000 words of ghostwritten content for clients everyday, and at least as much (often more) for my own personal books or journalism, I understand the need to escape electronic distractions. If I can't work effectively without avoiding my electronic notifications then I'm sure a lot of others can't either.