Tame the Email Beast and Have Time To Run Your Urban Homestead

The original smart phone?

When Kelly and I do a book appearance one of the most common questions is, “How do you have time for all this stuff?” Our response is two parts. The first is to say that we don’t recommend people try to do everything in our book but, instead, focus on the things you like to do most. The time will appear as your interests and priorities shift. The second is that we don’t watch TV.

That being said, there are many places in modern life from which to “harvest” some time other than from evening TV-viewing hours. Email is where I’ve begun my time harvesting lately. While incredibly useful, email has become a daily, herculean task. It’s also a medium that’s as addictive as crack (there has been debate about including email addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Like lab rats waiting for a treat to shoot down a slot, we get rewarded via stimulation for for checking it constantly.

This is where a suggestion in a book I otherwise strongly dislike1, Timothy Ferris’ The 4-Hour Workweek,  comes in handy. Ferris suggests checking your email twice a day, at 11 AM and 4 PM. Why these two times? He believes that we get our best work done early in the morning and that it’s best to have that morning period uninterrupted by distractions such as email. Ferris suggests that if you were to map out a day in which you checked email constantly you would see a huge amount of time wasted just through the short but high frequency of interruptions.

By checking email once at 11 and 4 you have a chance of getting a response before the end of the day. To do this you “train” your family, friends and co-workers by placing a footer at the bottom of your email to inform them when you check your email. Mine reads,

I check my email at noon and after the sun sets. If your needs are more urgent please give me a call at [HOME NUMBER]. Bloggin’ at www.rootsimple.com. Co-author (with Kelly Coyne) of the Urban Homestead (Process Media) and Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World (Rodale).

It would be cranky, but I’ve thought about reminding people that my phone number connects you to this device:

I may have to add on to that email footer:

I check my email at noon and after the sun sets. If your needs are more urgent, lease give me a call at [HOME NUMBER]. Regarding my communication device, the Western Electric 500 desktop telephone: It does not allow me to see what your number is, so do not be surprised if I don’t know who is calling. It is wired to the wall and, thus, not “mobile”. If you hear a “busy signal” (oldsters can tell you what that sounds like) it means I’m talking to someone else and don’t even know you’re trying to call. You should call again later.  The Western Electric 500 does not function as a map, camera, meat thermometer or allow me to update my Facebook page.  But it has a nice ring, and I do love hearing the sound of your voice. Bloggin’ at www.rootsimple.com. Co-author (with Kelly Coyne) of some books printed on paper.

But that would be rude.  Plus I do have a “mobile” communicator though I don’t give that number out, because I hate getting calls on it while I’m out and about and doing things.

But I digress. I’ve also worked on reducing email before it gets to me by sending many a newsletter and press release to my crack spam detection unit. And I deleted my email-generating Linkedin account (someone please explain Linkedin to me). If I could delete my Facebook profile I would, but I still find it useful for keeping in touch with friends and readers. And if I could shorten my emails to the length of the typical Morse code transaction I would, but that strategy, I fear, would get misinterpreted as brusqueness.

My new email twice a day regime seems to be working. I’m getting a lot more work done. Now I want to be clear that I’m not anti–technology. I like email and find cellphones useful in many circumstances. I just think that we need, as Douglas Rushkoff put it, a “time out” to sort out what’s useful and what is a time suck. I’d rather use email and cellphones as a tool to help other people, to garden, to do all the things I love to do. Taming the email beast has been a useful first time management step for me.

Leave a comment and tell us how you deal with email!


1. Why do I dislike The Four Hour Work Week? I think with this book and The 4-Hour Body, Ferris simply sat down and asked, “how do I write a best selling book?” Let’s see, what topics should I cover? What do people care most about? Flat abs? check. Money? check. Sex? check, etc. Sort through the hyperbole in these two hefty tomes and you’re left with a few sentences of decent advice.

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  1. That is SUCH a good idea. I always check my email in the AM after waking while drinking morning tea/coffee and I feel like I’m wasting time. I may have to try this 11/4 deal.

  2. Email isn’t that much of an issue for me. I suppose texting would be if I had that feature enabled on my phone.
    I’ve actually had people confront me about not texting back when they see me. Despite being reminded I don’t text their parting goodbye usually has the phrase,”I’ll text you”. What does that mean? Is it like saying we’ll do lunch?
    I agree about tv I think fb should be on that list as well.
    Love the retro space gear reminds me of nursing now with our tricorders compared to back in the day when all we were armed with glass thermometers & our witts.

  3. Time. Yes, the biggest savings for me and my husband is that we don’t watch t.v. Like your telephone, our computer is anchored to a desk, which is conveniently located near the kitchen, washing machine, and back door. I tend to check email, facebook, blogs, etc. when I walk by, am waiting for something to finish cooking, or spinning in the washer. I also like to eat breakfast and lunch looking at the computer screen, unless I am reading a really good novel. Then I read a bit of my book. I think I’ll log how much of my day is being spent at the computer, for other than research. I love your blog and have used several of your ideas successfully. I am in Fullerton and love that your gardening advise/information is relative to my area. Thank you for the time you spend to share with us.

  4. Giving up TV is a big help way too easy to just sit and watch passively.

    I’ve also become very fond of baking large batches of things rather than actively cooking. A big root bake as about the same prep time as something cooked on the stove but I don’t have to stand there and cook it (can do other things instead, and when it is done I have several meals worth of food.

    Oh, I hear you on linkedin. I finally had to delete that pointless e-mail generating piece of junk.

    I make generous use of filters in gmail to manage my mail. And I routinely have to go through bouts of unsubscribe to get me off lists to keep things manageable.

    – Michael

  5. I check the emails in the morning before work.I give myself 15 minutes.This gives me time to get a couple of things done before I have to get ready for work.In the evenings I wait until after the evening work is done and after the kids are done with homework.By then I am needing to sit down so if I waste a bit of time it’s Ok.

  6. I try to only check email in the morning and in the evening – it’s hard though, as I’ve definitely fallen prey to the lab-rat syndrome of email addiction.
    At one point it got so bad that I set a stop&start timer to 1.5 hours, and once I’d been online for that long, I was done for the day. It worked for a while, but now I try to self-regulate.

  7. I haven’t watched TV in years, but quitting Facebook gave me a good amount of time back and made me feel more grounded and connected to real life. It was like email, but more rewarding to constant checking in to see what other people whose lives were apparently more interesting to me than my own were up to!

    Now I just check my email during coffee times: usually around 9:30 and 2pm. The rest of the time, I just check the chickens to see what their latest status updates are.

  8. One good tool for handling internet addiction is a program called Freedom. I have an old version which I believe I got for free (? can’t remember now if that’s true) but it costs 10 dollars now. Still, it’s worth it if you’re prone to detraction. All it does is allow you to lock yourself out of the internet. You tell it how long you want to be offline. The only way you can break the lockout is by rebooting. You might say that it’s silly to pay for something so simple, but what it does is stop the inevitable, almost unconscious drift of the mouse up to the bookmarks bar. It has a free trial if you want to try it out.

  9. You slayed me with the second email footer. I don’t have a cellphone. I have a rotary dialed house phone (though not just like the one pictured) without caller ID or call waiting. So….you made me smile with your description. So true….

    And thanks for the tips on checking email only twice daily. I am going to try that and see if I can squeeze another few minutes of productivity into my day. You are right about the TV, too. Since I stopped watching that in the evenings after work I’ve found time to sew, garden, read, etc that I never knew I had!

    Have a wonderful day and thanks as always for the inspiration!

  10. My phone is also mechanical, though not vintage like yours. After the second multi-handset wireless grouping failed on me, I decided it was more important to be reachable, and headed to Radio Shack for an old fashioned, corded, plain phone. With a regular answering machine (though I find the new digital versions make it all too easy to unintentionally delete messages). I don’t even own a cell, though the parents of the kid I babysit loaned me one of theirs for while I have him, for which I obviously don’t hand out the number. I find that not having a widget in my hand all the time forces me to be present when socializing, and makes me plan things in advance, so I’m more productive.

    I do spend time watching TV, but usually while I’m knitting, so I don’t entirely count that as passive or wasted time. Sometimes they’re even informative documentaries (though subtitles or visual-only data complicates the knitting). Video games, however – I have yet to find a way to make video games productive, which is unfortunate in a house where I’m surrounded by gamers…

  11. I am this close (holding finger and thumb against each other) to just ditching the cellular, and going back to a standard analog phone. With a wall-jack; no mobile hoohah for me. The problem is the phone company is evil. Also, try walking into shop like RadioShack or BestBUY and asking them if they have any decent analog phones. I haunt used houseware stores now, for that phone.

    We don’t watch tv either. Ditching the cable five years ago was the biggest savings in money ever.

    I check email twice a day, basically. Unless I’m ill. Then it waits.

  12. Great phone story!
    I have a wind-up watch and a few years ago I noticed a puzzled look on one of my son’s friends. I showed him the watch and told him it was truly amazing technology – no battery needed! A few turns of the button and I’m set all day.
    I’ve noticed that some of the technological advances unnecessarily replace jobs that never needed replacing. We recently got rid of our beloved, but increasingly unreliable 1993 auto and bought a newer one. Since when is rolling a window up and down such a chore? Is it really necessary to have that done electrically, too? Everything in this car has a button. I was perfectly fine doing things manually and it’s so hard to keep track of all these buttons.
    As for the TV, we’re much too addicted to Masterpiece Classic and Mystery on PBS to unplug it completely. It’s our Sunday evening indulgence.

  13. @Donna: I get my fix of Downton Abbey and Sherlock off the PBS website. ‘Jes sayin… 🙂

    And I hate push button car windows, too, btw. What if the electrical system goes out–like if the car plunges into a river and you can’t open the door? I think about those things, even though the only river around here is the LA river and it’s 2″ deep most of the year.

  14. Mrs. Homegown: EXACTLY! I worry about those sorts of things, too. I live a mostly analog life (so call me a Luddite) and I feel more secure if I am able to do things for myself. I can see the importance of these conveniences for the disabled and elderly, but I am neither.
    We’ve tried watching TV programs on the computer, but it’s a bit harder to see while we’re seated on our cushy sofa near the nice warm wood stove. John can’t see well that far away. We still have a TV with a picture tube and it has exactly four buttons on the front of it – I don’t know what I’ll do when it dies and it is replaced by a TV requiring me to learn to use a remote. Talk about too many unnecessary buttons!

  15. We had a friend of my daughters stare at our rotary phone for about 10 minutes before she asked me how it worked. When I showed her how, she was delighted and wanted one for her household. Don’t think that ever happened however.

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