One of the common frustrations I hear from people regarding email is the
feeling of being not only swamped, but “at the mercy” of their inbox. When
email arrives they feel they have to act on it right away, regardless of
whatever they’re doing.
Factoring in the “New Mail” sound of many email programs, it becomes
Pavlovian – we hear the sound and like a well trained puppy we go check our
email, interrupting whatever we were doing.
Who’s controlling who? Or rather, what’s controlling you?
At a conference a couple of years ago, a good friend made a simple
suggestion had improved his productivity dramatically. You almost
could feel the productivity of the room increase as others implemented his
Turn off automatic new mail checking.
“However will I get my new mail?” you might ask. Simple. Manually. When, and
only when, you decide you want to check.
The problem with automated checking is that it’s an interruption. Often it’s
a frequent interruption that breaks concentration and dramatically impacts
If you’ve ever worked on something so intently that you’ve lost track of
time, you know what I’m talking about. That was probably very productive time
for you. The technical term “flow”, and it’s very cool when it happens, because
it typically does indicate a high level of concentration and focus on the task
at hand. In other words, productivity.
Now, imagine if you’re interrupted every 10 minutes with a “bing bong”
announcing new mail. The temptation is too great … you’ll probably interrupt
what you’re doing, and go check. You might even take “just a second” to respond
to a message or two.
But the “flow” is broken, the moment is gone. You’ve lost your focus.
And let’s face it, why should email be anything other than on your
terms? We all feel like computers are running our lives at times, this is one
simple way you can take back some control.
Phones and Rubber Bands
This really isn’t new. In fact, it’s an old idea applied to new
In the past, it was the telephone.
Frequently, even today, when a phone rings, people will interrupt what they
were doing – even a conversation with someone right in front of them – to
answer the phone.
Some years ago I read a time management book that describe an office that
made two changes:
- Older phones had actually bells in them – loud, obnoxious bells that
demanded attention. They opened up their phones and wrapped a rubber band
around the bell. Now, instead of a loud obnoxious RING, it made a soft purr.
Much less insistent, and much easier to let go.
- They defined it as “ok” to not answer the phone. Messages could be
left, and would be answered at a time more convenient to the recipient.
It’s the same principal as checking email on your schedule, not someone
But I Want It Now!
So if you’re in a situation where you need to be quickly accessible?
To begin with email was never the right solution. There are legitimate
reasons that email might be delayed, sometimes for hours. You should never rely
on email being near real time, even though it often is.
Instead, consider the other ways in which you make yourself available:
phone, instant messaging, pagers and more. Let email be what it was designed to
be: a store-and-forward approach to message delivery without a specific time
requirement. Use more immediate technologies for more immediate needs.
Naturally those technologies have many of the same risks. If checking your
email every 10 minutes is replaced by an IM interruption every 10 minutes, we
haven’t solved anything. Make sure that immediate needs are truly immediate. If
not … turn off your IM client or ignore your phone and use voicemail (put a
rubber band around the bell, if need be :-).
There is at least one reason you might leave automated email downloading
enabled. If you typically get a lot of email or large emails, the time it takes
to download might be significant. It’s nice to turn to your computer and have
it already be there.
The solution is simple.
Turn off the notification.
Let email client download all it wants to, whenever it wants to, as long
as it doesn’t interrupt you. If you don’t notice then it’s nearly
equivalent to it not happening at all.
If you find yourself distracted by the download, then it’s not working.
Better to switch to a download on your terms, than run the risk of periodic
Just Make Sure It’s Your Choice
The bottom line is simply that you should make sure that you are
choosing how, and when you’re willing to be interrupted, and by
Then use that control to ensure you get the time you want to focus on
whatever it is you’re doing.
Without a “bing bong” every 10 minutes.