Work on your goals by focusing on what matters.
It is 9 am on a Monday morning, and the unread message counter on my Gmail app reads 129. A long time ago I self-diagnosed as an “Inbox Zero” type, a designation I used to be really proud of. But for the past three or so years it has been nearly impossible to get rid of the dreaded red circle. No matter how many newsletters I unsubscribe from, more seem to crop up everyday.
Many years ago I used to manage my freelance work through my inbox. I went through it like a to-do list of my deliveries for the day or the week. Things have changed a lot since then, though, as my email has become a no man’s land of special sales, appeals for donations and business tips and tricks you simply cannot miss. Work projects began to get lost in the deep marshes of daily miscellanea: unopened requests to apply for this or that position (often lengthy processes that end up leading nowhere), jobs I had little interest in, team back-and-forths that did not concern me in the least.
Occasionally I will go and delete it all, but for the most part I’ve sort of given up. I’ve let the wilderness run free and learned to coexist with the chaos. After all, the chaos is just a name for things that feel out of our control, and what if chaos has its own order we cannot seem to discern?
This is how I have begun to view email management, the first step in my newfound road to no-frills productivity. I used to feel guilty when I couldn’t stay on top of my email, paperwork or a consistent social media posting schedule. I thought I was doing a terrible job, that I was lazy and an ineffective administrator.
What was I doing with my time, then? Doing the actual work, mind you. I am a freelance translator and I also run a small dance studio and write. Translation takes work, focus and research. Each day I must divide my time between my projects, managing my schedule, preparing classes, developing choreography and promoting my studio. Also, I do most of the chores at home, keep tabs on the groceries, plan and cook meals and clean up afterwards. At some point along the line, keeping my inbox spruced up and designing a gorgeous Instagram grid just fell very low in the priority list.
Nevertheless, I could never let go of the low-grade guilt I felt until I truly learned about how these technologies are designed for precisely that. Listening to The Center for Humane Technology’s podcast, watching “The Social Dilemma”, reading books like Social Media Is Bullshit and Irresistible helped me understand my own unique relationship to these media and realize that I was turning them into yet another chore because I had come to rely on the rewarding feelings of accomplishment they are meant to elicit.
I began to focus on cutting through the fog of behavioral conditioning and define as best as I could the true purpose and function of these technologies. Email allows me to communicate with clients and to receive and deliver projects without ever leaving my home. Social media lets me present my product to my target audience and communicate with people interested in dance classes. Anything else is non-essential.
I then began implementing structures and boundaries around these. I let myself off the hook for all the unread emails full of coupons and branding tips, occasionally opening one or two that catches my eye and deleting all the rest. I have gotten out of the habit of monitoring my inbox first thing in the morning and every fifteen minutes.
For social media, I devise a content plan for the whole month, devote about 20 minutes to creating the content each day, post it and leave. I have focused on creating a better website where I can direct my customers to engage with me more intimately through email or text. I invested on a great bookings system that helps me reduce friction when it comes to closing the sale, and this has made me spend a lot less time chatting with people in my DM’s answering the same questions over and over again.
By this point it is practically a cliché to say that email and social media are huge distractions that hold us back from doing the things we want to do. However, it is often difficult to figure out exactly how to get out of falling prey to them. For me, it has been about honestly asking myself what exactly I gain from focusing so much time and energy on these things, and whether they weren’t fulfilling some other need.
Gmail has now instituted a new function that notices you haven’t opened an email from a particular sender in a while, and automatically asks you if you want to cancel your subscription. This is the type of design feature we need in order to reduce clutter and overwhelm, and lead lives focused on doing more of the things we love, like resting.