The Time-Sucking Lie We Tell Ourselves

I’ve spent a lot of time talking with people about how they get things done…or not.

It’s almost funny. We put together great strategies for their organizations, complete with goals/objective/tactics/metrics.

We plan out what needs to be done and how much it will cost and how we’ll know it’s been successful.

Then we meet again to talk about progress, and the issue is almost always the same. There aren’t enough hours to get it all done.

Money issues, staff supervision, board management and dozens…perhaps hundreds of other items get in the way of accomplishing real work during normal business hours.

So our conversation then turns to the somewhat dreaded topic of time management, and what’s filling up the workday.

That’s when our greatest foe pops up.

It’s inevitable, it’s a time-suck, and it’s very, very real:


Now, I completely get that email is important. In fact, I’m thrilled to be running a business at a time when so much can get done through this handy mode of electronic communication.

But let’s get real about it.

I was recently sitting among a group of professionals and someone asked how we’d feel if we opened up our email and there was nothing new there.

Immediately we all chuckled, dramatically clasping our hands toward the sky and saying if that could only be true.

How much more time we could have!

How much more focus we could have!

How much more work we could get done!

Then, she asked us again. And she asked us to be honest. And that’s what I’m asking you to do, too. 

I will go first.

If I were to open up my email inbox tomorrow and it came up empty, my heart would sink.

Despite knowing in my brain that email soaks up so much time and energy, the fact of the matter is it is my way of connecting with my colleagues, my clients and the circle of people I have gathered around me over my lifetime.

An empty inbox might mean nobody thought to write me. Perhaps nobody cared enough to write me. Perhaps, I’m not that important.

Even though I’d know deep down that wasn’t the case really, the emptiness of my inbox would be hard to swallow.

And here’s the other thing about an empty inbox.

It would leave me with no distractions from the things I don’t want to deal with throughout the day.

So now I ask you to think about the question.

Then, recognize that our constant and deliberate decision to check our emails at every turn, peering at our iPhones under the table or letting our eyes wander to our PCs during a meeting (when everyone knows what we’re up to, by the way)…is not necessarily about trying to stay on top of things and get them off of our proverbial plates.

Though that’s a fantastic excuse.

In reality, for many of us email is our way of connecting. It’s our way of communicating. It’s our way of feeling important.

It’s also our way of focusing on something else when the job gets too tough, the project too tedious, the stress level too high.

It’s the perfect, most devious distraction. One that most of us cannot resist.

But once we are honest with ourselves we can admit that there are very, very few things in that inbox that need our attention immediately.

If someone must reach you now about a pressing issue now…someone will follow up with a phone call now.

When we think about how many hours we spend in a day focusing on emails instead of our projects, letting our minds wander to what’s new instead of what’s in front of us – or what we don’t want deal with – then at least we can work toward some discipline in the matter.

I challenge you to join me in acknowledging the email lie, and resist the urge to check it incessantly.

Instead, designate a time to check your emails and respond. And get the ones that have been gathering virtual dust in your inbox filed and out of the way.

Start out by checking it every hour…maybe every half hour to get used to it.

Force yourself to use that other time…the time previously sucked up by emails…to focus, get your work done, progress toward your strategies, and get home at a decent hour.

Do it for a week.

Then sit back and revel in all of that you’ve achieved.

Now, go do good…and do it well.

8 thoughts on “The Time-Sucking Lie We Tell Ourselves

  1. Heather says:

    I have enjoyed reading about corporations who have had email blackout times. Employees actually converse face-to-face with more clarity and less “tone” which gets projects moving and concentrated strategy time is allotted.

  2. Felice Lam says:

    Great entry, Deirdre. I really enjoyed reading this. Great tips!

  3. Love this post! I talk about the drain of emails all the time and know what a time sucker it really is. Your comments provoked some interesting thoughts for me.

  4. Great post, Deirdre! This is SO true. I can’t tell you how productive I am when I just ignore my email for an hour or two and do the actual work.

  5. My friend Karen shared this with me on Facebook and I had to respond.

    I am currently sitting in a beautiful home at an eco-lodge in the Andes Mountains in Ecuador. This morning I saw a magnificent Andean Condor fly overhead. I can hike volcanoes, go to indigenous markets, eat fantastic food, and even just hang out with the llamas who graze next door to this house.

    But what do I want to do every morning first thing? Check email. Check Facebook. Check Twitter.

    We are in week 2 of our 4-year trip, and I’m wondering how long it will take for me to break this habit. I mean, what kind of emergency can there be for someone who no longer has a house, job, or possessions? Yet I still check.

  6. Thanks Dierdre. I really appreciate your writing and the topic. It has been one of my pet peeves for quite some time.
    You put it in to perspective.

  7. So true! During my MBA, one of the VP’s of the University that was substituting for the professor, gave us some tips on time management & she shared with us that she set time aside daily to check e-mail, as opposed to looking at it constantly. Staff had to get used to receiving replies from her at certain times of the day vs instantly.

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

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