Rats, emails and the first hour of my working day

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How many times have I gone into work, opened up my computer and checked my email? Basically every day of my working life. I do it to clear the decks before I actually begin work. I tell myself that it’ll be easier to focus once my inbox is empty. There might be people waiting for responses. I’ve heard the temptation of email put down to random reinforcement by Dan Ariely:

“ Psychologist B. F. Skinner came up with the idea of random reinforcement, where you give a rat a lever and every hundred times it presses the lever, it gets a piece of food. For the rat, that’s exciting. But if the number is a random number – any number between one and one hundred – it actually ends up being more exciting. And the rat keeps working much more, even if you take the reward away all together. Email and social networks are a great example of random reinforcement. Usually, when we pull the lever to check our email, it’s not that interesting. But, from time to time, it’s exciting and the excitement, which happens at random intervals, keeps us coming back to check our email all the time.”

A very pleasing comparison I’m sure you’ll agree – when it comes to our emails, we effectively behave like rats.

Also dealing with emails feels like you’re making progress. You can tick off emails and file them away. It’s visible progress right in front of you.

The trouble with doing emails first things is that the best part of my day is the morning.   By the time I’ve got through my emails, I’m flagging, my energy’s dipped and concentration is gone. Your email and incoming calls are basically a list of other people’s priorities for your time. Every time you check them or answer a call, you’re reacting to their priorities and not spending time on your own.

I’m currently trying to change my working day so I’m becoming proactive and creative first and then reactive second.

Here’s what I’m trying to do at the moment to manage my working day better:

  1. Know what my work priorities and goals are. A few years ago, I heard about Bill Hybel’s 6×6 tool. You answer the question, “What are the 6 greatest things that you can accomplish to contribute to your organisation in the next 6 weeks?” Knowing the answer to this question keeps me focussed on the important instead of the urgent. These are taped onto a post it on my laptop and travel with me wherever I’m working.
  2. Block off the first hours of the day to work on these priorities. I’m now blocking off the first portion of the day to work on these priorities. I have the most energy and concentration in the morning, therefore, if I need to write a preach/teaching session or create a strategy document, I’ll do that first. Do your most meaningful creative work at the beginning of the day and then leave all your reactive work for the afternoon.
  3. Kill the Background Noise. Don’t open your emails, turn off apps, avoid answering the phone as much as possible. We lack self-discipline and with emails running in the background and social media apps pinging and number next to them ever increasing, we’ll find it too tempting to flick onto them to see what’s waiting for us.

I know there’ll be many mornings when I don’t do this, when I get into work and squander my time dealing with email and the trivial but I hope this plan will make my time far more proactive and fruitful in the long run, which will ultimately be of greater benefit to the church that I work in the long run.

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