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This CEO's Success Hack? Don't Check Email

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Photo: Courtesy Vinaya.
Send Kate Unsworth an email any day of the year and you’ll get an instant auto reply:

“Last month I reduced my email traffic by 70%. It made me more productive, happier, and more responsive to things that were urgent. I will only check this email address occasionally in an attempt to maintain focus and improve productivity. Please excuse the delayed/lack of response.”

A 24/7 out of office note is unusual for anyone in today’s working world, let alone a tech CEO, but Unsworth’s message isn’t your standard auto reply: it’s a personal and professional mission statement addressing how we use and live with technology. She doesn’t see tech as the enemy, but she does see it as something that needs boundaries. And Unsworth’s hoping that her two-year-old company, Vinaya, which has tripled in size in the past year and raised its first $3 million seed round of funding, will help fix that.

Unsworth's email woes, as many of ours have, began after college.

“I got sucked into the corporate world,” she says. “I would read emails in bed as soon as I woke up and right before I went to sleep. I would go to dinner with friends and still be checking email. My mentality, which I realized later was completely flawed, was if I respond quickly now, then I’ll have less to do later later, and I’ll be able to keep on top of it.”

Then, on a Thursday night in late 2012, Unsworth had a quarter-life crisis of sorts when she went to meet a friend for dinner.

“I was furious because my phone had run out of battery and I didn’t have a spare charger with me," she says. "I forced myself to look at myself and ask, ‘Why are you so mad right now? This is ridiculous. There’s a jazz band playing and you have a glass of wine in your hand and you had a successful day at work. Just chill the fuck out.’”

After much paper napkin scribbling and soul-searching, Unsworth decided to try an experiment. With her boss’s permission, she stuck to a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. work schedule, and stayed offline during the hours she wasn’t in the office. At work, she only checked her email twice — once in the morning and again right before she left. The rest of the day, she focused only on one written task at a time.

The difference was drastic.

“I found that I was still getting the same quantity of work done in a much shorter time frame and that my work was noticeably better,” Unsworth says. There was also an improvement in her personal relationships. “I was much more present. Before, I was always so distracted that I wasn’t really processing what friends were saying. I’d gotten to this point where I was responding with really generic answers.”

In 2013, Unsworth decided that it wasn’t enough to work on her digital detox alone — she wanted to find ways to make it easier for others to disconnect, too, so she founded Vinaya.

The company, whose name in Sanskrit means both tranquility and discipline, employs researchers to study how people form habits, and uses those insights to help designers build wearable tech that addresses the problem. Its first product, Altruis, is a Bluetooth-enabled ceramic stone that sits in a ring, necklace or bracelet, and vibrates when you get messages or notifications. It's the opposite of most smartwatches, which Unsworth thinks facilitates our screen checking addiction.

Nowadays, Unsworth only checks her email at most once a day (sometimes not at all), reading roughly 10% of the emails that come through. She is on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter for a combined total of five minutes daily (she uses Stay Focused to keep herself in line). While her drastic approach won't work for everyone, there are still ways you can adopt her ethos.

“Set your own boundaries and be very clear about it,” Unsworth says. “You’d be surprised how many people respect that. The difficulty is when you’re inconsistent.”

Instead of letting email notifications pop up and distract you from other tasks during the day, she recommends setting specific times to check your inbox. For meetings, her team checks their devices at the door, and and they set a timer for 20 minutes to stay focused. This results in increased productivity, less stress, and more happiness overall.

“It’s hard to say why, but it’s such a thrill to quiet all the digital noise,” Unsworth says.

Her team describes this with the hashtag #jomo — joy of missing out.

Vinaya is stocked at Browns exclusively in the UK.
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