Every year I try to use my birthday as the launching pad for making a positive change of some kind. When it arrived about six weeks ago, I happened to be reading a new book, Change Now!: Five Steps to Better Leadership, that several of my colleagues recently wrote.

The authors know something from their research that’s been confirmed by neuroscience: Our brains are simply not wired to make too many big changes at once. So if we’re really serious about making a change, the first of five steps to success is to pick a single area and give it our full attention.

As the CEO of a global educational nonprofit, my job is to be strategic, to align the near term and the long term. That’s a skill that can always be improved and that also requires continual focus – and, frankly, it’s hard to cultivate in a world of information overload. So I decided to make it a top priority for the rest of this year.

Next came the second step, which is to create a clear achievable goal. The more I thought about it, the more I zeroed in on what is perhaps the single biggest obstacle to strategic, big-picture thinking – my email inbox.

Like yours, it never stops replenishing itself, and I never stop looking at it, whether it’s at my desk or on the phone or the iPad. Indeed, research from my colleague Jennifer Deal found that leaders spend an average of 13.5 hours a day connected to work through their phones!

Part of the reason for our addiction to email is that we’re trying to be professional and stay on top of things. But there’s also a less noble reason – dealing with email all day, and experiencing the fleeting and literally addictive rush that comes from reading and responding to messages, is a lot easier than actually digging into a project that requires sustained concentration and deep thinking. That’s not something you can do when your phone is constantly buzzing in your pocket.

So my goal became crystal clear – assert control over my inbox and reap the rewards of better listening, sharper thinking and, ultimately, better leadership. That brought me to step three in the change process: Developing specific tactics that drive the change we want.

My tactics weren’t complex. They called for engaging with email only four times a day, ideally around 8:45 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. These sessions last about 15 minutes each, and they are essentially the only times that I give the contents of my inbox a good look and respond to messages.

Does this feel natural?

It does not.

After years of habitually scanning email whenever possible, I still tend to wonder what’s in the inbox and whether it’s something crucially important. The temptation is always there to take a quick peek. So I committed to a second tactic, which is to keep my phone plugged in at my desk and to leave it there when I go to meetings around the building or talk with colleagues in the conference area. That doesn’t feel natural either, but gradually it’s broken the reflex of reaching for the phone during every uninterrupted moment.

Step four in creating change that sticks is crucial – anticipating obstacles to achieving our goals. My organization has 10 offices around the world, so emails arrive in my inbox 24 hours a day. Sometimes they require a swift response. In general, colleagues know to call my office or cell phone if something really serious is happening, but occasionally emergencies need to be addressed via email. As you know, the possibility that a problem is lurking out there is another reason it’s so hard to put the phone down.

So, in addition to my four daily email checks, I do a quick scan before going to bed and after getting up in the morning. I’m only looking for high-priority communications and try not to open any messages at these times, particularly in the evening when an unfortunate but non-urgent message can ruin an entire night’s sleep. So far, this system has worked.

Which brings us to step five – putting the plan into action and monitoring progress. The bottom line is I’m spending a lot less time on email and feeling more present – thinking more deeply, listening more carefully and asking better questions. That’s not just my own view either. Co-workers, friends and family members who aren’t scared to tell the truth are offering positive feedback. Also, with more time for real thinking and action, I’m helping move a couple key strategic initiatives forward by making a little progress on them every day.

It’s possible to reassert control over our inboxes. And I hope these five steps for driving change help you do the same, or succeed in another area where you’d like to improve. Better yet, what are your own tips for managing email and dealing with distractions? Feel free to send me an email about them. Just don’t expect an instant reply.

This column is one of several that CCL President and CEO John Ryan has written on leadership as a Linkedin Influencer. Click to view all his columns and sign up to receive future posts.

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