Email, social media and the internet generally are great tools for good. But creating an automated schedule for all three helps me be more effective.

Walter Mischel's "marshmallow experiments" found that kids who waited for two marshmallows used "strategic allocation of attention" (covering eyes, playing elsewhere, etc.) to keep from the tempting single marshmallow.1 Jesus likewise instructed his disciples to "watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation." (Matthew 26:41a).

The character to live and serve effectively requires God's grace by the Holy Spirit and we should regularly express that dependence in prayer. Tools like these though can help us "watch" better.

1. Check email twice/day via InboxPause

I used to constantly peruse my email which interrupted my work and wasted energy as I'd think about those messages I procrastinated dealing with.

Then I heard about InboxPause, which stores emails in a hidden Gmail label and moves them to the inbox on a schedule. I can still click a couple times and open that label, but impulsive email checks don't show messages, so the temptation to constantly peruse email is a lot lower.

I get emails at 8am and 4pm, and on work days I try to clear my inbox before the emails arrive again. I follow the spirit of David Allen's two-minute rule from "Getting Things Done": I immediately do/drop/delegate quick things and defer longer tasks to a to-do list.

Tricks to make this sustainable:

  • I added a Gmail filter so emails from cru.org accounts, HipChat and GitHub go to a special label which allows me to give timely responses to coworkers without seeing the rest of my emails.2
  • If I need to see a specific email (e.g. a verification email from a site or want to see if someone replied before I do some action), I'll search just for that message.
  • If I'm expecting a reply to a message that needs a timely response, I'll move that conversation to the inbox (rather than archive) so I'd see a new message in it right away.
  • I give myself grace when I still procrastinate emails (or more rarely, raid the label). But I keep the automated rhythm set up and I find it helps me back to healthy email habits.

2. Schedule internet cut-off via router

"Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work." - Gustave Flaubert3

Knowledge workers often have great flexibility, which, when undirected, leads to confusion and reduced effectiveness. A daily routine provides one tool to structure the important things of life.

One "marshmallow" that has often kept me from disciplined routines is staying up late using the computer doing unimportant tasks or lazily browsing the web.

To create routine, I cut internet to my tablet, phone and computer at 9:30pm. All but my tablet get it at 6am, but my iPad doesn't until 10am. That let's me put my iPad next to my bed to read the Bible and my prayer list in the morning without the internet distracting me. (I keep other
devices out of the bedroom).

Here's how to set up an internet cut-off routine:

If I really need internet after 9:30pm, I'll use my wife's computer or in an extreme, tether to my phone - but both remind me I'm breaking routine.

3. Limit social media via Chrome extension

There's value in keeping up with friends, news and tech, but media sites can become distractions and time sinks. I don't visit Facebook much,
but I've poured many would-be productive hours into Hacker News.

So I set up Nanny for Google Chrome to only allow access to the site between 8am and 8:45am. That way it won't interfere with my earlier quiet time or later workday, and it can be a reward for getting through the 8am emails. When I miss that window (common since our baby!), I tell myself that as the day is progessing there are more important things to do.

I could still use a different browser, disable the extension, etc., but those extra steps make self-control easier. (And I do permit myself to view it on my phone when I'm out). Other extensions that do similar things though seemed a bit less flexible are Stay Focusd, and SiteBlock. You can configure limited amounts of time instead of set windows if you prefer as well.

Ultimately, these boundaries display my limits in focus, time and energy. And they call me to depend on my limitless Creator.

Footnotes

  1. "Mischel’s conclusion, based on hundreds of hours of observation, was that the crucial skill was the 'strategic allocation of attention.' Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow—the 'hot stimulus'—the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from 'Sesame Street.' Their desire wasn’t defeated—it was merely forgotten." — "Don’t! The secret of self-control" (newyorker.com)

  2. My main Gmail filter for emails from coworkers (Skip Inbox, Apply Label "*Internal") looks like this: from:(@cru.org -quickread@cru.org) to:(nickname.last@cru.org OR name.last@cru.org)  The "-quickread@cru.org" makes Quick Read list messages get stored in the regular inbox pause box rather than going to my "*Internal" label. I have two email aliases, and the OR clauses captures both.

  3. This was originally in a letter he wrote (according to Wikiquote), but I saw it quoted in a page about the "The Daily Routines of Famous Creative People" (podio.com).