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Don't let email ruin your life

(MoneyWatch) - A year ago, my iPhone had an unfortunate accident. I dropped it on the floor while putting on my coat. The screen held together, but developed a large crack. On an old-school Blackberry, something like that wouldn't matter because there's a keypad. But on an iPhone, where you have to touch the screen to do anything, that's a problem. The broken glass was sharp enough to cut me if I wasn't careful. In the few weeks before I got around to replacing the phone, every time I checked email, I risked slicing my finger.

Needless to say, this made me notice how often I was checking email. The answer? A lot. The upside, of course, is that the prospect of bodily injury made me check it less often. Is getting my email worth slicing my finger? In a pinch, yes. But usually no.

After replacing the phone, I went back to my old ways, but lately, I've been trying to monitor just how often I'm checking my iPhone or clicking over to my email in my web browser. The answer is dozens of times per day. And I'm guessing you do the same. Try figuring it out. Get a little notebook, and make a hash mark every time you see what's come into your inbox. We humans are very much like lab rats, hitting the lever to get a treat. Inboxes are perfectly designed to be addictive. Each unopened email is like a little scratch-off box on a lotto ticket. There's always the prospect of a big win.

But usually, it's just another J. Crew ad. So, to keep email from ruining your life, try two things:

1. Look at your number of email checks per day, and set a budget. Check it 100 times? Try giving yourself a budget of 50. Check it 50? Maybe you can get it down to 30. When you're done for the day, you're done. Chances are, you'll start pacing yourself.

2. Set "no email" times. Turn off your phone, shut your browser or close your email program, and make certain hours into no-go times. If you're truly addicted, this is harder than it seems. I do it when I'm trying to write a difficult article, and my fingers actually feel itchy, shuffling over to the iPhone before I realize it's off. But turning it on makes you think about it, and most likely you'll stop.

Do these two things, and you'll spend a lot less time on email. That's a good thing because, if you think about it, email isn't your job. It's a tool to do your job. That's what I learned from my sliced-up fingers.

How often do you check email per day?

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