(Looking for some background on the Creative Heroes series? Check out my intro post HERE!)
As the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn Glei was responsible for those books. I’m quite certain they have made a big impact on the work and lives of many creative people. Yours truly devoured them when they came out and they continue to be very popular – with excellent reviews! – on Amazon.
If you’re not familiar with Jocelyn, I’ve added her bio at the end of the interview. For now, I’ll just say that she’s a smart and interesting person who writes about work and creativity in the Age of Distraction (yes, I stole that tag line from her website).
Last week she launched her new book, called Unsubscribe. As I expected, it is brilliantly written and provides some excellent advice on dealing with the time-sucking monster known as email.
In the Age of Distraction, I think productivity is really about what you DON’T do. It’s about saying no to the chatter on email and social media for given periods of time so that you have the brainpower to actually create something you’ll be proud of at the end of the day. I think we need to spend less energy on just keeping busy, and more on leaving a legacy. ~ Jocelyn K. Glei
If you’ve been around the Creative + Mindful blog for more than a minute, you know I’m all about making good use of time and love anything that improves productivity. So I was eager to talk with Jocelyn about Unsubscribe and all things time-management related.
Her responses to my questions are gold!
Jocelyn graciously shared a bunch of great links and suggestions on dealing with email as well as other productivity wisdom. Read on, Grasshopper!
C+M: Can you briefly describe what Unsubscribe is about?
Jocelyn: I think we’re living in a new “Age of Distraction,” where we’re all experiencing an unprecedented level of strain on our attention. Think about how many apps you use in a day, or how many browser tabs you have open, or how many messages, alerts, and notifications you process in a day. It’s kind of insane!
And the challenge of living in the Age of Distraction is that it’s incredibly easy to be busy, but it’s incredibly difficult to be deliberate, to be focused. But you can’t produce anything of value without focus. So what do we do as creative people living in a world that seems increasingly designed to sabotage the focus necessary to produce great work? Answering this question is what I’m obsessed with—and it’s what all of my books focus on.
As you might expect, Unsubscribe, focuses specifically on one of our greatest workplace evils—email. Essentially, it’s a modern guide to taming inbox overload and avoiding distraction—so that you can spend more time on the work that really matters. It shows readers how to break free from email (and social media) addiction, build healthier work habits, and prioritize their creative goals on a daily basis. The book also includes some really tactical advice on how to handle delicate tasks like writing emails that provoke action, delivering criticism with tact, negotiating fees effectively, and getting clients to pay you.
C+M: Email can be such a scourge of productivity, especially for creative people! Did you have any particular catalyst for writing the book or did you reach a tipping point with your own email?
Jocelyn: As one of my favorite writers E.B. White said, “Creation is in part merely the business of forgoing the great and small distractions.” I really believe that distraction is the enemy of creativity. And when we think about distraction at work, email is still public enemy #1. It’s killing our productivity. Let me give you some stats: The average person checks their email 11 times an hour, processes 122 messages a day, and spends 28% of their total workweek on email. What’s worse, is that it’s common practice to let email dictate your mood, your focus, and your to-do list at work. And I think the outcome is that we’re spending a disproportionate amount of our time and energy on busywork and not enough time the challenging, creative tasks that will give our work real meaning.
C+M: The statistic you mention – upwards of 28% of our workweek is spent dealing with email – is just plain alarming! Did your research uncover any other troubling distractions? In other words, is there a public enemy #2?
Jocelyn: I would say that social media is a clear #2 for most people, or the messaging app Slack if you work in an office that requires you to use it. (Jason Fried, the founder of Basecamp, does a great takedown of Slack and group chat apps here.) The average person now spends almost 2 hours a day on social media, compared to zero hours less than a decade ago. What were we doing with all that time before?!
In Unsubscribe, I speak specifically to the topic of email, but I chose that topic because it’s a perfect microcosm of all of our problems with any technology. There’s this old saying that “tools make excellent servants but very poor masters,” and I think that we’re really letting our tools master us right now—and we have to learn how to take back control. The psychology behind why we’re so addicted to email that I share in the book, and the strategies I offer for overcoming that addiction, all work equally well for resisting social media or any other technological tools.
C+M: A lot of email from companies is just marketing and fluff – and most of my social media feeds are pretty to look at but not critical – however, sometimes I get that FOMO feeling when I scroll down to unsubscribe. Any thoughts on dealing with that?
Jocelyn: I like to think of it like: YOLO not FOMO. The Washington Post just released this amazing article that has a calculator for predicting how much of your life you will waste on email. I think we all have a “fear of missing out,” but I like to remind myself to weigh that against the idea that “you only live once.” Do you want your headstone to say: “RIP, she checked every last email”? Or would you rather have it say something a bit more meaningful?
C+M: I often see fellow creatives responding right away to clients, instead of adhering to a structured time for email (and I’m guilty of this too!). Is there a satisfying way to balance responsiveness/good service with structure when you are a creative freelancer/working artist/entrepreneur?
Jocelyn: I think you have to start by “timeboxing” your email routine. There are two types of emailers: reactors, who rely on notifications and near-constant monitoring of their inboxes to nibble away at their email throughout the day, and batchers, who set aside specific chunks of time to power through their email so they can ignore it the rest of the day. Not surprisingly, batchers are significantly more effective when it comes to getting things done, and according to recent research, they’re also less stressed. To get yourself into the groove of batching, I recommend setting aside two to three blocks of 30–60 minutes per day for checking email.
The second step is to stanch the inbox influx. If you find yourself getting distracted by incoming messages every time you open your email to deal with existing messages, try using Outlook’s Work Offline feature or download the Inbox Pause browser extension for Gmail. I also recommend trying out the free app EasilyDo Email, which has a killer one-touch unsubscribe feature for opting out of promotional mailing lists without ever leaving your inbox.
Lastly, there are ways to still make sure you’re taking care of clients while still checking your email in batches. If you want to stick to specific blocks of time for checking email but you have a special someone who will freak out if you don’t tend to their email within five minutes of receiving it, you can compromise by using VIP notifications. On an iPhone, you can designate certain people as VIPs, so whenever you get an email from them you get a special push notification. The Gmail app and Android phones have similar options for designating priority senders. Then you’re freed up to ignore your email without worrying you’ll miss something crucial.
C+M: A lot of business advice for creative entrepreneurs states that newsletter mailing lists are gold because emails are one of the best ways to reach potential customers/clients. What would you say to creatives who ask if the goal of unsubscribing is out of sync with their own email marketing efforts?
Jocelyn: I would say: You do you. You can’t spend your life worrying about what other people think. The goal at the end of the day is to feel like you accomplished, or offered, something of value. If you create a newsletter that brings people real value and that they continually open and feel engaged with, great! You’re doing your job on that front, and can rest easy. On the other hand, you want to end your day feeling like you accomplished something of worth as well—and if you have to ignore a lot of the noise coming into your inbox to do that, well then so be it. You will never be productive if you can’t learn how to say “No.”
C+M: Do you see apps like Slack becoming better productivity alternatives to email (for teams, at least)? Or are they just another type of distraction for us?
Jocelyn: Obviously, given my earlier answer, I don’t think that Slack is the answer to all our prayers. In fact, they just added a new feature that tracks your “unread messages,” which made me think that Slack is perhaps becoming just another email-like inbox that people expect you to be checking even more frequently.
Despite the rapid evolution of technology, and the hype about real-time messaging solving all our communication woes, I think that email will continue to be the primary way that we communicate with people remotely—particularly with people you don’t know well—for years to come.
Email will continue to be the way that you manage customers on a day-to-day level, the way that you apply for jobs, and the way that you reach out to people you don’t know to solicit help, advice, money, and work. Not to mention being a key channel for marketing your products and content, negotiating fees and engagements, and pitching prospective clients.
In other words, everything from whether you land that dream job to how much money you will make could depend on your ability to give good email. And considering that you likely spend more than a quarter of your workday on email, it’s not too far-fetched to argue that your mental well-being depends upon it as well.
C+M: I was very interested to read your recent blog post about how you dealt with burnout in your personal life. Mindfulness practices and alternative healing (such as acupuncture and reiki) are becoming more mainstream these days. Can you comment on how the steps you took to come back from burnout impacted your creativity?
Jocelyn: I think we’re all living in a state now where we’re over-worked, over-stressed, and over-anxious. We’re working at a pace that is utterly unsustainable for the next 10, 20, or 30 years. But I think most of us are ignoring that fact right now. What’s more, I think that this over-loaded state is the antithesis of the state of mind (and body!) that you need in order to be creative.
Part of the reason I had to spend a few years trying to rebuild and rebalance my mind and body was because I spent about 5 or 6 years in a dead sprint while working at a startup. I was seriously depleted, and because I wanted to make a shift toward spending most of my time writing, I had to make a change. I was not well-equipped to be creative and to motivate myself every day in the state I was in.
That makes it sound like I’m so zen and recovered now, but of course I’m not. I think the big benefit of taking a step back, and dialing my work down for a period of time, was to get some perspective and become more conscious. Now when my energy starts to get too buzzy, or I feel like I’m working at a pace that’s too draining, I can recognize it more quickly and readjust. We always talk about work/life balance like it’s something you arrive at. But of course, the work of balancing is never done. It’s always a space that you’re passing through and then longing to revisit. So it’s good to appreciate the peaceful moments when they’re happening.
C+M: I always ask my Creative Heroes interviews to describe what a typical day looks like for them and if they have any “starting the day” or “ending the day” rituals. What do these look like for you now that you’re some way down the road to recovery from burnout?
Jocelyn: The most important part of my morning routine actually happens before the morning, which is making tomorrow’s to-do list the night before. If I start the workday with a clear picture of my key priorities, I am infinitely more productive—not to mention more relaxed. Kicking off the day without a plan opens you up to the dangers of “reactive work,” letting other people’s demands dictate what you do with your day (via incoming emails, co-worker interruptions, etc).
On the wall beside my desk, I also have two 12×9 sheets of paper that guide me as I make my daily to-do list: One outlines the big projects and goals I’m focused on for the next 6 months, the other is a calendar tracking my daily progress, mood, and energy levels. How many words did I write each day, how much exercise did I do, how much energy did I have when I woke up? Etc. This helps me get a holistic picture of how my habits are impacting my general well-being and my work output. As in, when I exercise more and eat healthier, my daily word count will be higher. Or, if I have a few drinks, I’ll sleep poorly and my mood and work output will decline.
When you start your day with a to-do list that’s aligned with your goals already in hand, you can dive right into execution mode and your routine will take care of the rest. I wake up at 7am and take my dog for a 20-30 minute walk to get the blood pumping and feel how the day is unfolding outside. Then I eat breakfast while reading through my RSS feeds, which I use to curate my weekly newsletter.
From 9am to 12:30pm, I focus on my “deep attention” creative work—for me, that’s writing. According to our natural circadian rhythms, most people reach peak alertness between about 9-11am, so I schedule my most challenging work then. I break that 3.5 hour block into roughly two 90-minute sessions with a 30-minute break, in keeping with Anders Ericsson’s research on how top performers work.
During these morning sessions, what’s most important is what I do not do: I don’t check my email, I don’t log into social media, and I don’t schedule meetings or calls if I can help it. I also frequently listen to the same instrumental music—no words because they are distracting—again and again as an associative trigger for my mind to get into a creative space.
Then I take an 60-90 minute break for lunch, and a swim or a nap to rest and reboot my brain. Then it’s back to work for 3-4 hours in the afternoon, this time focused on less demanding “hyper-attention” work—tasks that are easier and more interruptible. Everyone’s energy dips in the afternoon, so I use that time to focus on less challenging stuff like catching up on email, social media maintenance, website updates, financial planning, etc.
Routines are great for churning out work, but the drawback—of course—is that they can be boring. Occasionally you need to mix it up when things get stagnant, and you need new inspiration. The real challenge is to become exquisitely sensitive to your own bullshit avoidance tactics. Are you trying to break from routine because you would prefer to procrastinate and not put in the work? Or have you truly earned a day off to play hooky and generate some new ideas?
C+M: Anything else you’d like to share with Creative + Mindful readers about productivity, creativity or mindfulness?
Jocelyn: In the Age of Distraction, I think productivity is really about what you DON’T do. It’s about saying no to the chatter on email and social media for given periods of time so that you have the brainpower to actually create something you’ll be proud of at the end of the day. I think we need to spend less energy on just keeping busy, and more on leaving a legacy.
Enormous thanks to Jocelyn for this terrific interview!
Jocelyn K. Glei is a writer who’s obsessed with how we can find more creativity and meaning in our daily work. Her latest book, publishing in Oct 2016, is called Unsubscribe, a modern guide to killing email anxiety, avoiding distraction, and getting real work done. Her previous works include Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark, which offer pragmatic, actionable advice for creatives on managing their time, their careers, and their businesses. She was formerly the founding director of the 99U Conference and editor of 99u.com, which earned two Webby Awards for Best Cultural Blog and a rabid fan base of productivity nerds. She lives in Los Angeles and online at jkglei.com.