Time

The Black Hole Inbox: An Incredible Email Productivity Tip I Learned From a Fortune 50 CEO

I got my first office job in my early twenties.

For four months between school years in college I held the sexy job title of “summer intern” at a big consulting company in a downtown high-rise. Casey was my boss and the head of the project I was assigned to for the summer, which was for one of the world’s largest oil and gas companies.

One Monday morning, I was sitting in his glass-windowed corner office with the rising sun beaming onto the desk between us. More than three months of late-night stress and working on weekends had finally rolled up to right now.

We were minutes away from our big presentation.

Casey’s sense of humor had carried me through all the challenges and Chinese take-out boxes leading up to today, but he had just asked me a last-minute question that made me snap. My nerves were frayed. I had no energy left.

“Why do we have an assumption in here instead of an actual figure?” he asked.

“Because Roger didn’t write back to my three emails asking him for the right number and he never gave us a number where we could call him. I tried his assistant twice and never heard back, either. It’s like he forgot we existed. You know that.”

Roger was the highly touted CEO of the oil and gas company who everybody looked up to. He was featured in flashy magazine articles and known as a people leader who espoused work-life balance while nonchalantly beating his numbers every year. Meanwhile, employees at the company told us he ate lunch in the company cafeteria, drove a beat-up truck to work, and had dinner with his kids every night.

The man was a legend.

A CLOUD OF SMOKE 

After our introductory meeting three months back I wrote Roger an email summarizing our meeting and next steps. He didn’t write back. I then took my laptop home every night in case Roger emailed with an urgent question or request. I checked email every half an hour just in case the CEO of the company ever emailed late at night asking for a project update the next morning. Just so if he ever needed something, anything, I’d be ready, I’d be there. 

But… there was nothing.

Roger had seemingly disappeared in a cloud of smoke.

In three months of working for him he didn’t write me a single email. He didn’t write Casey any emails, either. We dropped a few questions along the way but never heard back. And I had just told Casey my messages to his assistant weren’t returned, either. Now suddenly it was time for our big presentation and Casey was questioning why I didn’t have certain numbers.

I steadied my nerves as we stepped into the boardroom where Roger was sitting and chatting with our company president. He smiled and got up to shake our hands and thank us for the work we’d done. “I’m so excited,” he said with a big grin. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate how hard you’ve been working. You guys are geniuses. I’m going to learn so much from this chat.”

The anger I felt about his unresponsiveness suddenly melted. I felt like a million bucks.

We jumped into the presentation and had a great discussion. It was casual, engaging, and open. He loved it. And I couldn’t believe how relaxed everything felt. He was talking to us like old friends. After the meeting was done there was so much trust between us. So as we were packing up, I thought about it for a split second, and decided to ask him one last question.

I couldn’t help myself.

THE MAGICIAN REVEALS HIS SECRET

“Roger, thanks so much for today. We had trouble checking some numbers by you in advance. And I know we didn’t hear from you on the additional questions we had. So, just for my own learning, can I ask why you don’t write or respond to emails? How do you do that?”

His eyes opened a bit and he seemed surprised by the question. But he wasn’t fazed.

“Neil,” he said, “there’s a problem with email. After you send one the responsibility of it goes away from you and becomes the responsibility of the other person. It’s a hot potato. An email is work given to you by somebody else.”

I nodded, thinking about all the emails I got from Casey and co-workers.

“I do read emails, but the ones looking for something are always much less urgent than they seem. When I don’t respond, one of two things happens:

1.  The person figures it out on their own, or

2.  They email me again because it really was important.

Sure, I send one or two emails a day but they usually say, ‘Give me a call,’ or, ‘Let’s chat about this.’ Unless they’re from my wife. I answer all of those.”

I was very confused.

How was the CEO of a multibillion-dollar company with thousands of employees not emailing?

He paused to look at me and sensed I didn’t get it.

“You know what,” he continued. “Since I don’t write many emails, I don’t receive many either. I probably only get five or ten emails a day.”

THE BLACK HOLE INBOX

Five or ten emails a day?

Here I was working at a consulting company writing emails morning, noon, and night. It was the same for everyone. “My inbox has seven hundred emails,” my coworkers would say and sigh. “I did emails all Sunday afternoon.” There was no way around it. After all, our bosses sent urgent emails at 7:00 a.m. Saturday, late Sunday afternoon, or 11:00 p.m. Friday. I knew this was common in my company and others.

McKinsey had even reported that office workers spend on average 28% of their time answering emails. Almost a third. And Boomerang, one of the world’s largest email productivity services, reports the average person gets 147 emails a day.

We were all attached to our cell phones and computers, firing emails around, working hard to get everything done. Some people did Inbox Zero where the goal was to quickly delete, reply, or sort every email down to a baseline of empty. Others picked and prodded at them more. But everyone did emails. You couldn’t just ignore them. After all, it was part of the job. We all wanted to do a good job.

Suddenly it started to click why Roger was known for having lunch in the cafeteria with employees every day and driving home for dinner with his family every night.

He didn’t respond to hot potatoes.

He didn’t write back to emails and create email chains.

I looked up at Roger again, and he continued.

“Most of the time Neil,” he said, “people really do figure it out on their own. They realize they know the answer, they keep on moving, they develop confidence for next time. They become better themselves. Your assumptions in the slides today weren’t perfect, but they worked perfectly well and you learned by doing them. Don’t get me wrong. I sometimes walk over to chat with a person or pick up the phone. But if I wrote back to the email, I’d be sending a hot potato. And nobody wants to be asked by their boss or a Director or a VP or the company CEO to do something… never mind on an evening or weekend. Why? Because people would drop everything to reply. And they would expect me to reply to that. Basically, if I sent an email, it would never end.”

“So I end it.”

The Black Hole Inbox means mentally thinking of your inbox like a black hole.

People may fire emails in there! Here come questions! Here come queries! Here come concerns! And all of them get precisely zero response. The emails never come back. They never see them again. They disappear into the black hole.

Screen Shot 2019-04-08 at 4.02.34 PM.png

Because the truth is you have only one brain.

And it can only focus deeply on only one thing at one time.

Your brain is the most incredible and complex object in the universe. We have never seen anything like it. We barely understand it. We use it, but we don’t know how we use it. When we kick, we pull our leg back and swing it forward. When we think, we just think. As Cliff once said on Cheers, “Interesting little article here. It says the average human being only uses seventeen percent of his brain. Boy, you realize what that means? We don’t use a full, uh… sixty-four percent.”

In order to focus on deep work, rich work, creative work, we need uninterrupted time. We can read our emails. Sure! Read them. But replying is what kicks off the incessant ping-ponging that never ends. Think of your inbox like a black hole and try hard, very hard, to dramatically reduce your replies. 

This is a scalable idea, too. If you get 100 a day and reply to 0? You're an all-star. Hardcore! But if you're replying to 75 today and you get it down to 50? That's a huge improvement, too. That's 25 more ping-pong balls you're not smacking back. Every single email you blackholify helps.  

Roger was the smartest guy at the company. Rose through the ranks! With huge respect from so many. All while eating lunch in the cafeteria every day and dinner with his family every night. 

I learned a few other things later on about Roger. I learned he was known internally all the way up the corporate ladder for not replying to emails. It infuriated some people! Most stopped emailing him altogether. But he created valuable Untouchable Days for his mind to think and always make sure he was doing the right things… rather than just doing things right. People loved working for him because he didn’t bog them down with micro-management. He empowered them. He grew great teams. And? He got endless promotions.

What else?

In addition to Roger’s Black Hole Inbox, I learned he didn’t have a desk phone, personal email address, or any social media accounts. At all.

How can you let your brain produce great work, savor space, and power your biggest ideas, most passionate efforts, and greatest accomplishments? 

Start with thinking about your inbox like a black hole.

This article is adapted from my book The Happiness Equation

3 Ways To Fight Cellphone Addiction In Schools

I was speaking at a principals’ conference recently. Want to take three guesses at what most of the questions were about? If you said “cellphones, cellphones, and more cellphones” you’re right.

“How do we pull students off devices?”

“How do we remove cellphones as a distraction and regain focus and attention in classrooms?”

“What can we do to cope with growing cellphone addiction and anxiety and other problems rising up?”

Well, first off, it is an addiction. We’ve talked before about how when everyone is addicted to something it looks like nobody is. It’s not the only thing! Caffeine, sugar, you guys know what I’m talking about. But, on phones, my old answer used to be to ban cellphones. Not allowed! Keep them away from classrooms, lunch rooms and hallways. But the tide has shifted. When I asked the room of 300 elementary and high school principals how many didn’t allow cellphones in classrooms … nobody put up their hand.

And then I stared a bit closer at all the conference tables around the room. What was sitting in front of everybody? Cellphones. Of course.

That’s when I realized.

Pandora’s Box is already opened.

You can’t stuff demons back in that easily.

It wasn’t even a few years ago I remember CEOs or conference MCs holding up cardboard boxes and asking everyone to toss their cellphone in before a big meeting began. But now all we do is tell people which hashtag to use.

Why are we so afraid to tell others to give up their phones? Because we don’t want to give them up ourselves.

And it’s not our fault as the devices are designed to be more and more irresistible and addictive and, since we are the most social species on the planet, our phones have become the primary connective tissue to our family, friends, coworkers, tribes, subreddits, fantasy football leagues, celebrity follows … all our social connections.

2017 study looked at how people with high and low nomophobic (no-more-phone-phobia) tendencies perceive and value their smartphones. The findings suggest that we see our phones as extensions of ourselves, which is what creates separation anxiety to our phones. That’s right — high cellphone users literally feel anxious when separated from their devices.

Clinical psychologist Brenda K. Wiederhold further elaborates on this subject: “Nomophobia, fear of missing out (FOMO), and fear of being offline (FOBO) — all anxieties born of our new high-tech lifestyles — may be treated similarly to other more traditional phobias. Exposure therapy, in this case turning off technology periodically, can teach individuals to reduce anxiety and become comfortable with periods of disconnectedness.”

But it ain’t that easy!

So what do we do?

Well, I have three suggestions.

1. Zones

After a moment one principal bravely put up her hand and said “You know, we’re trying something at our school. We have 25-minute nutrition breaks twice a day. And in those breaks we say cellphones aren’t allowed. The students sit at tables, face each other, and if we see a cellphone … we take it.”

“How’s it working?” I asked.

“Well, we end up taking a bunch of cellphones every day. It’s really hard for them. But most of them have figured out they can make it 25 minutes and be able to use their phones right afterwards.”

So if you can’t yank the drug, how about a cellphone free zone? It can be schedule-based or maybe location based. Like no cellphones in the library.

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema is an Austin, Texas-based movie theatre chain that is growing in leaps and bounds. While movie theatres nationally experienced a 3.4 per cent drop in box office sales in 2010, Alamo saw a 2.6 per cent rise in sales, and if you include food and drink revenue, that number is up to 4.8 per cent.

What differentiates the Alamo from the rest? Well, it has set in place policies to improve the customer’s overall experience … including one no other movie theatre has: if you use your cellphone a bouncer kicks you out.

Like I said, the chain is growing in leaps and bounds.

2. Modelling

Are you complaining about students using cellphones with your phone sitting on your desk?

Last month the New York Times released an article on why Silicon Valley parents are becoming increasingly obsessed with keeping their children away from phones … and why many are now asking their nannies to sign “no cellphone” contracts to help keep technology away from their kids.

One Silicon Valley nanny said: “Most parents come home, and they’re still glued to their phones, and they’re not listening to a word these kids are saying … Now I’m the nanny ripping out the cords from the PlayStations.”

Are children using their phones more because their peers are … or because their parents are?

This all reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon I saw recently. Two women are sitting beside each other on a park bench. Each has a young girl beside them, presumably their daughters. One mom is holding a phone. Her daughter is looking at a phone. The other mom is holding a book. Her daughter is reading a book. And the caption is phone-holding mom asking book-holding mom: “How do you get your kid to read?”

3. Fasting

How often do you say “Wow, I drank too much at that wedding. No drinks till next weekend.” Or “I gained five pounds over the holidays. I’ll walk to work this month.” These fasts are little mental systems put in place to prevent slipping again. Systems always beat goals.

So if you’re leading a group of people (in a school, sure, but it also applies elsewhere) you can apply the fasting principle to the group.

How? Start by saying you’re going on a fast.

A Facebook fast, an Instagram fast, a “no social media apps on my cellphone” fast. You pick the fast!

Then ask who else is in, draw up a leader board, and track who lasts the longest. Throw in a prize if it helps. Use a website like stickk.com or  futureme.org if it’s helpful.

Declare cell free zones! Model the behaviour! Take a fast!

Yes, our tools may be dull and rusty.

But we can win this war yet.

A slightly modified version of this article originally appeared in the Toronto Star

The Power of 1000

I didn’t realize it at the time, but something special happened to me on June 20, 2008.

I was in a pretty depressive state with my marriage heading the wrong direction and my best friend suffering from severe mental illness. I needed an escape. An outlet. A place to go. A place to vent.

So, I typed “How to start a blog” into Google and pressed that “I’m feeling lucky” button, which no one ever presses. And 10 minutes later, I started up a tiny website called 1000 Awesome Things.

My idea was to write down 1000 awesome things for 1000 straight weekdays to cheer myself up.

Why 1000?

Well, 100 awesome things sounded too low. Too easy! I could whip that off in a few months and I’d be finished. I didn’t expect I’d have things figured out in my own head that quickly.

And one million awesome things sounded like too much. A million! How many years would that take? Oh, not many, just a couple thousand. Since I’m not Gandalf, I knew I was aiming too high.

So, 1000 was my baby bear bowl of porridge.

It sounded jussssssssst right.

For the next four years, for the next 1000 straight weekdays, I really did write 1000 awesome things on my blog. And while my marriage fell apart and my best friend sadly took his own life, that tiny blog became a salvation, a place to escape to, a place to disappear to.

On April 19, 2012, 1000 weekdays after I launched it, I announced the No. 1 awesome thing in a downtown bookstore beamed live to the CBC National News.

And then … that was it. I hit 1000. The project finished. The blog ended. And I moved on.

But something happened to me over the years.

And it’s something I never put a finger on until pretty recently.

The number 1000 kept appearing in my life.

I thought maybe it was just the famous Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. You know, when you keep seeing the same obscure word jump out at you after hearing about it for the first time. Does that happen to you? In 1994, a commenter on the St. Paul Pioneer Press’s online discussion board came up with the term after hearing the name of the ultra-left-wing German terrorist group twice in one day.

But the number 1000 felt deeper than that.

When researching The Happiness Equation, I looked a lot at lifespans around the world. I was trying to understand why people in Okinawa, Japan, for example, live seven more years than North Americans and have no word for retiring.

So, guess what our average lifespan is? Here’s the interesting thing. It’s 1000 months. Or just over 83 years.

“There’s that number again,” I thought to myself.

A year later, I was working on my journal 2 Minute Mornings. I found I was stressed out so I came up with a routine to help me chill. Each morning, I would wake up and answer three research-backed prompts to both clear and focus my mind:

  • 1. “I will let go of …”

  • 2. “I am grateful for …”

  • 3. “I will focus on …”

When part of your life is doing interviews with media, you get good insight from journalists. And that’s what happened. I was doing the TV, radio, and podcast circuit on this journal and a host said something that struck me. She said:

“Today, we welcome Neil Pasricha on the show. His challenge? You’re awake 1000 minutes every day. Could you take two of them to make the other 998 even better?”

Wait a minute.

You’re alive 1000 months.

You’re awake 1000 minutes a day.

What an incredibly helpful way to measure what you’re doing in life in the broadest possible sense.

Renovating your fixer-upper for three months? Feels awful. But maybe small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. After all, it’s only 3 of your 1000 months. Hate your 100-minute commute? Well, that makes sense. You’re only awake 1000 minutes a day, so you’re burning 200 or 20% of them in the car.

What’s another reason 1000 is such a powerful number?

Because it’s a moon shot number that’s actually realistic.

When you’re only alive for 1000 months (or roughly 30000 days), then doing something for 1000 of them is a massive commitment … that you can actually do.

Can you do 1000 morning runs?

Can you cook 1000 homemade dinners?

Can you teach 1000 students?

Can you help 1000 people?

Yes, you can. It will take you a while. But you can.

And why 1000?

Because it is clear and measurable and big and daunting … but reachable. I wanted to so many times to quit while writing 1000 Awesome Things. But I had that number, that commitment, those three big zeros staring me in the face.

Once I’d spent a year writing a few hundred awesome things, could I look at myself in the mirror if I quit? I decided I couldn’t, which is where duds like, say, #806 Ducks came from on my blog.

How do I use it in my life today?

I decided I wanted to try and read the 1000 most formative books in the world before I die. Easy math. About a book a month. I realized there was no list of 1000 books I could trust and no algorithm that could feed me these 1000 important, life-changing books.

So, I made my own. I decided to interview 333 people who I find inspiring and ask each of them for the three books which most changed their lives. Who? Authors like Judy Blume, David Sedaris, and Mitch Albom. Creatives like Sarah Anderson of Sarah’s Scribbles or Chris Anderson who runs TED. Or inspiring people I stumble upon like Vishwas Aggrawal, the world’s greatest Uber driver with a 4.99 rating and over 5,000 rides.

I record these conversations in a podcast called 3 Books with Neil Pasricha and I release one chapter on the exact minute of every new moon and full moon since March 31, 2018 till 5:52 a.m. on Sept. 1, 2031.

2031? Yes! That’s the magic of 1000.

It’s a moon shot — I may never make it. I started the project at 38 years old and I’ll be in my 50s when it’s over. But it’s 1000 books, so it will take me a long time. But I now know, and I now believe, in the power of 1000 to lead me there.

As George R.R. Martin wrote: “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies … the man who never reads lives only one.”

There it is again. A one with three zeros.

What can you do a thousand times?

Just sign up for doing 1000 of something and then get ready to drop your jaw and stare back at yourself as you accomplish your massive goal.

Good luck!

A slightly modified version of this article originally appeared in the Toronto Star

Why You Need An Untouchable Day Every Week (And How To Get One)

I hate meetings.

They sit subconsciously in my brain, taking up space. I prepare for them in my notebooks. I travel to them, and then back again, in the middle of my work days. And what do most meetings usually result in? You guessed it — more meetings.

When I worked as Director of Leadership Development at Walmart, my days were full of meetings. Everybody’s were! And when I quit two years ago to strike out on my own as an author and keynote speaker, I thought my days full of meetings were behind me.

But I was wrong.

I now have research calls and phone interviews, lunches with literary agents and web developers, conference calls about book titles and publishing schedules, radio interviews, and media prep calls. And before every speech I give, there’s always a meeting with the client and meeting planner to clarify goals and logistics for the event.

Turns out meetings never really go away.

But the problem is I’m now measured almost solely on my creative output. And there’s no time for it! It’s not just me, either. As our world gets busier and our phones get beepier, the scarcest resource for all of us is becoming attention and creative output. And if you’re not taking time to put something new and beautiful out into the world, then your value is diminishing fast.

I used to be one of those “wake up at 4 a.m.” or “keep chugging ‘til 4 a.m.” guys who grinds away at work for hours while everybody else sleeps. It’s how I wrote a thousand blog posts in a thousand days at my blog 1000awesomethings.com. But I now understand that you can only drive in the express lane for so long before the wheels come off.

I’m no longer that guy. Now when I get home after work, I soak in time with my wife and two little boys. Nothing is or will ever be as precious to me, and I resist insight from anyone who isn’t making space for loved ones. I realized that what I needed was a practical way to get more work done without taking more time. And, to be honest, I needed it fast. Why? Because in my first year as a full-time author, I actually started feeling my productivity slipping — even though I had quit my full-time job. It wasn’t just disheartening; it was also embarrassing. “So how’s the new book coming?” “Oh, now that I quit my job? Terribly!”

I finally found a solution that I feel has saved my career, my time, and my sanity. If you’re with me right now, I bet you need this solution too: I call it “Untouchable Days”.

These are days when I am literally 100% unreachable in any way…by anyone.

Untouchable Days have become my secret weapon to getting back on track. They’re how I complete my most creative and rewarding workTo share a rough comparison, on a day when I write between meetings, I’ll produce maybe 500 words a day. On an Untouchable Day, it’s not unusual for me to write 5,000 words. On these days, I’m 10 times more productive.

How do I carve out Untouchable Days?

I look at my calendar sixteen weeks ahead of time, and for each week, I block out an entire day as UNTOUCHABLE. I put it in all-caps just like that, too. UNTOUCHABLE. I don’t write in all-caps for anything else, but I allow UNTOUCHABLE days to just scream out to me.

Why sixteen weeks ahead? The number of weeks isn’t as important as the thinking behind it. For me, that’s after my speaking schedule is locked in — but, importantly, before anything else is. That’s a magic moment in my schedule. It’s the perfect time to plant the Untouchable Day flag before anything else can claim that spot.

On the actual Untouchable Day itself, I picture myself sitting in a bulletproof car surrounded by two-inches of thick impenetrable plastic on all sides. Nothing gets in. Nothing gets out. Meetings bounce off the windshield. Texts, alerts, and phone calls, too. My cell phone is in Airplane Mode all day. My laptop has Wi-Fi completely disabled. Not a single thing can bother me… and not a single thing does.

But I know what you’re thinking: What about emergencies?

The short answer is that there really never are any. The long answer is when my wife asked me about emergencies, she didn’t love my rant about how back in the day, nobody had cell phones, and we were all unreachable at times. As a compromise, I told her that when I started scheduling Untouchable Days, I’d open the door of my bulletproof car for an hour at lunchtime. When I did, I came face to face with the whizzing bullets of seventeen text messages, dozens of urgent-sounding emails, and endless robot-generated alerts and feeds — and precisely zero emergencies from my wife. So after a few months, we stopped doing that and instead I just started telling her where I’d be. That gave her peace of mind that if something horrible happened, she could call the place I was working or simply drive over and find me as a last resort.

I’ve now pulled off Untouchable Days for a year. Nothing horrible has ever happened, and we’ve both grown more comfortable with zero contact throughout the day.

So what do Untouchable Days look like up close?

I think of them as having two components.

There is the deep creative work. When you’re in the zone, you’re in a state of flow, and the big project you’re working on is getting accomplished step by step by step.

And then there are the nitros — little blasts of fuel you can use to prime your own pump if you hit a wall. These unproductive moments of frustration happen to all of us, and it’s less important to avoid them than to simply have a mental toolkit you can whip out when they happen. What are my tools? Heading to the gym for a workout. Grabbing a pack of almonds. Getting up and simply running down the street, or going on a nature walk. After all, Thoreau said “I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” And Hemingway stated “I would walk along the quais when I finished work or when I was trying to think something out. It was easier to think if I was walking and doing something or seeing people doing something that they understood.” What else? A ten-minute meditation. Or switching to a new workspace. Or my wonder drug of precariously turning off Airplane Mode for ten minutes (while staying off of email and text) and leaving voicemails for my parents and close friends, telling them I love them. It works every time, and I get back to work quickly because, let’s be honest, nobody ever answers their phone.

So what happens if the bulletproof car really does get bumped? Say I get an incredible speaking invite or somebody much more important than me only has this one day to get together? Red alert: The Untouchable Day is under threat. What do I do?

I have a simple rule. Untouchable Days may never be deleted, but they can move between the bowling-lane bumpers of the weekends. They can’t jump weeks, though. They are more important than anything else I am doing, so if they need to move from a Wednesday to a Thursday or a Friday, that’s fine — even if I have to move four meetings to make room. The beauty of this approach is that when you plant the Untouchable Day flag on your calendar, it really does feel permanent in your mind. You start feeling the creative high you’ll get from such deep output as soon as you start booking them in.

Before I started using Untouchable Days, I treaded water — I wrote articles, I gave speeches. But something was missing. When I implemented Untouchable Days in 2017, magic happened. I wrote a new 50,000 word memoir, wrote and launched a new 60-minute keynote speech, drafted book proposals for my next three books, and completely planned and began recording my new podcast 3 Books — all while traveling and giving more speeches than I ever had before.

With a year of Untouchable Days under my belt, do I still go through the exercise of scheduling one Untouchable Day every single week?

The honest answer is no.

Now I schedule two.

A slightly modified version of this article originally appeared in Harvard Business Review

How to Add an Hour to a Day with Only One Small Change

I got my first office job in my early twenties.

For four months between school years in college I held the sexy job title of “summer intern” at a big consulting company in a downtown high-rise. Casey was my boss and the head of the project I was assigned to for the summer, which was for one of the world’s largest oil and gas companies.

One Monday morning, I was sitting in his glass-windowed corner office with the rising sun beaming onto the desk between us. More than three months of late-night stress and working on weekends had finally rolled up to right now.

We were minutes away from our big presentation.

Casey’s sense of humor had carried me through all the challenges and Chinese take-out boxes leading up to today, but he had just asked me a last-minute question that made me snap. My nerves were frayed. I had no energy left.

“Why do we have an assumption in here instead of an actual figure?” he asked.

“Because Roger didn’t write back to my three emails asking him for the right number and he never gave us a number where we could call him. I tried his assistant twice and never heard back, either. It’s like he forgot we existed. You know that.”

Roger was the highly touted CEO of the oil and gas company who everybody looked up to. He was highlighted in flashy magazine articles and known as a people leader who espoused work-life balance while nonchalantly beating his numbers every year. Meanwhile, employees at the company told us he ate lunch in the company cafeteria, drove a beat-up truck to work, and had dinner with his kids every night.

The man was a legend.

After our introductory meeting three months back I wrote Roger an email summarizing our meeting and next steps. He didn’t write back. I then took my laptop home every night in case Roger emailed with an urgent question or request. I checked email every half an hour just in case the CEO of the company ever emailed late at night asking for a project update the next morning. Just so if he ever needed something, anything, I’d be there.

But…there was nothing. In three months of working for him he didn’t write me a single email. He didn’t write Casey any emails, either. We dropped a few questions along the way but never heard back. And I had just told Casey my messages to his assistant weren’t returned, either. Now suddenly it was time for our big presentation and Casey was questioning why I didn’t have certain numbers.

I steadied my nerves as we stepped into the boardroom where Roger was sitting and chatting with our company president. He smiled and got up to shake our hands and thank us for the work we’ve done. “I’m so excited,” he said with a big grin. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate how hard you’ve been working. You guys are geniuses. I’m going to learn so much from this chat.”

The anger I felt about his unresponsiveness suddenly melted. I felt like a million bucks.

We jumped into the presentation and had a great discussion. It was casual, engaging, and open. He loved it. And I couldn’t believe how relaxed everything felt. He was talking to us like old friends. After the meeting was done there was so much trust between us. So as we were packing up, I thought about it for a split second, and decided to ask him one last question.

I couldn’t help myself.

“Roger, thanks so much for today. We had trouble checking some numbers by you in advance. And I know we didn’t hear from you on the additional questions we had. So, just for my own learning, can I ask why you don’t write or respond to emails? How do you do that?”

His eyes opened a bit and he seemed surprised by the question. But he wasn’t fazed.

“Neil,” he said, “there’s a problem with email. After you send one the responsibility of it goes away from you and becomes the responsibility of the other person. It’s a hot potato. An email is work given to you by somebody else.”

I nodded, thinking about all the emails I got from Casey and co-workers.“I do read emails, but the ones looking for something are always much less urgent than they seem. When I don’t respond, one of two things happens:

  1. The person figures it out on their own, or

  2. They email me again because it really was important.

“Sure, I send one or two emails a day but they usually say, ‘Give me a call,’ or, ‘Let’s chat about this.’ Unless they’re from my wife. I answer all of those.”

I was very confused.

How was the CEO of a multibillion-dollar company with thousands of employees not emailing?

He paused to look at me and sensed I didn’t get it.

“You know what,” he continued. “Since I don’t write many emails, I don’t receive many either. I probably only get five or ten emails a day.”

Five emails a day? Here I was working at a consulting company writing emails morning, noon, and night. It was the same for everyone. “My inbox has seven hundred emails,” my coworkers would say and sigh. “I did emails all Sunday afternoon.” There was no way around it. After all, our bosses sent urgent emails at 7:00 a.m. Saturday, late Sunday afternoon, or 11:00 p.m. Friday. I knew this was common in my company and others. McKinsey had even reported that office workers spend on average 28% of their time answering email. Almost a third. And Baydin, one of the world’s largest email management services, says the average person gets 147 emails a day. We were all attached to our cell phones and computers, firing emails around, working hard to get everything done. It was part of the job. And we all wanted to do a good job.

Suddenly it started to click why Roger was known to come to have lunch in the cafeteria with employees every day and drive home for dinner with his family every night.

He didn’t respond to hot potatoes.

He didn’t write back to emails and create email chains.

I looked up at Roger again, and he continued.

“Most of the time Neil,” he continued, “people really do figure it out on their own. They realize they know the answer, they keep on moving, they develop confidence for next time. They become better themselves. Your assumptions in the slides today weren’t perfect, but they worked perfectly well and you learned by doing them. Don’t get me wrong. I sometimes walk over to chat with a person or pick up the phone. But if I wrote back to the email, I’d be sending a hot potato. And nobody wants to be asked by the CEO to do something…never mind on an evening or weekend. Why? Because people would drop everything to reply. And they would expect me to reply to that. Basically, if I sent an email, it would never end.

“So I end it.”

How to Protect Your Most Valuable Asset

You have only one brain. And it focuses on only one thing at one time.

Your brain is the most incredible and complex object in the universe. We have never seen anything like it. We barely understand it. We use it, but we don’t know how we use it. When we kick, we pull our leg back and swing it forward. When we think, we just think. As Cliff once said on Cheers, “Interesting little article here.

It says the average human being only uses seventeen percent of his brain. Boy, you realize what that means? We don’t use a full, uh…sixty-four percent.”

Your brain is capable of infinite possibilities: producing great works of art, building businesses, raising children. Brains made The Starry Night and the Great Wall of China. The Beatles and the Bible. Brains made planes, trains, and automobiles. Brains make your life what it is and die when you do. The good news is for no money down, no annual fees, and no monthly interest, you get one free copy of the universe’s most complex and powerful object. It’s yours for life! The only bad news is there is no warranty, it requires daily charging, and even the longest-lasting models in the world last only forty thousand days. (The average model lasts twenty-five thousand days.)

Roger was the smartest guy at the company. No doubt about it. In the years since, he’s gone up and up and up. All while eating lunch in the cafeteria every day and dinner with his family every night. I had worked with Roger only three months when I learned how to add an hour to the day with only one small change.

How?

Block access. Protect your brain. Guard it. Remove all entry points to your brain except a single one you can control. In addition to Roger’s approach to email, I learned later that he didn’t have a desk phone, personal email address, or any social media accounts. Fuel your brain and let it run wild by removing access points. Close the doors and lock the windows, but answer the bell.

What’s the bell? It’s your #1 top priority. What was Roger’s bell? Emails from the chairman of the board and his family. Not voicemail, not texts, not anything else. Have you ever shopped in a small town convenience store where they have a little bell on the front counter? They are busy stocking shelves. They are busy unpacking boxes. They are busy placing orders. But when you ring that bell they are right there, right away. That’s what it means to close the doors and lock the windows but answer the bell.

Let your brain produce great work, savor space, and power your  biggest ideas, most passionate efforts, and greatest accomplishments.

An older version of this article appeared in The Observer

This article is adapted from a chapter in my book The Happiness Equation