One of the most disturbing trends I have seen over the past few years is people allowing technology to dominate their lives, waste their time and allow themselves to effectively develop a learned attention deficit disorder.
Email has a special place in this discussion. People are treating email as a real-time communications tool, reacting to the email “ting” or visual cue with an almost Pavlovian response.
While email is a wonderful tool, it has become an absolute menace to productivity for at least two reasons: volume and incorrect usage.
Many email programs check for new messages EVERY MINUTE. That means in a 9 to 5 workday you are giving people 480 opportunities to interrupt you, not including your other methods of contact such as instant messaging, telephone calls and chatty co-workers asking if you “have a minute”.
Here are two practical tips for getting this monster under control.
1. Keep Your Email Program Closed By Default
Open your email program only a few designated times each day – preferably only once or twice per day if that’s possible.
This will accomplish two things. Firstly and most importantly it will allow you to have more focused and uninterrupted concentration on your most important tasks.
Secondly, it will reduce volume because people expecting immediate responses will stop sending you email and when they do it will be more thorough and to the point, as they know they will only hear back from you once or twice a day at most.
Don’t worry, if something is truly urgent, they will pick up the phone and call you (have you ever heard of someone emailing for an ambulance?).
2. Adopt A Productivity System
The simple fact is that most people don’t really know how to use their email.
Some treat it as a to-do list system, while others treat it as an archive for all of their communications. The simple fact is that your email is just an electronic version of your physical mailbox or in-tray.
What do you do when you collect mail from your mailbox? Remove it! You don’t store it there or leave it in the mailbox as a reminder of what to do later. You bring it in and (hopefully) handle it.
Your email handling process should be part of your overall productivity system. I personally use and highly recommend David Allen’s excellent Getting Things Done (GTD) system.
However, go with whatever system works for you. The important thing is to have a system which gives you clear rules on how to handle growing volumes of incoming information, whether this is in the form of email or anything else.