Email, the most productive distraction of all

Email, the most productive distraction of all Picture

The amount of time that we use email proves that as much as we may hate it, it’s an integral part of our business toolbox. We need to manage it better.

In my last entry, I seemed to rail against email. I didn’t really mean for it to come off that way but it did. I know that it did because a client followed up with an email saying, “I hate to send you another email after reading your blog…”.

So, in this entry, I’m going to swing the pendulum back in favor of email because frankly, the amount of time that we use it proves that as much as we may hate it, it’s an integral part of our business toolbox.

I also haven’t found anything to replace it despite the fact that it has been declared dead many times over. Generally, such death notices are sent once a competing technology or app gains mindshare among tech writers and pundits. Think instant messaging, rss, chat, slack, etc. The funny thing about apps like this is that they, like email, have their own cycle of acceptance and rejection. This cycle starts with breathless blog posts talking about how the app will change the world, and end with a break up letter. To wit - Slack, I’m Breaking Up with You.

By the way, the comments of the slack Dear John post are worth a read, if only to see the way people alternatively blame the tools and the user. I’m slightly more inclined to believe that the apps are designed to cater to our compulsive (addictive) tendencies after reading this particular article on user behavior and whether or not apps should be regulated like casinos.

I suppose we’re all - not just bloggers - looking for an easier, more reliable way to communicate but, much like traditional mail, email is going to be hard to replace. So, instead of replacing it - let’s just manage it better.

As a side note, in the month since I posted that article (Feb. 2016), my time spent on “Communication and Scheduling” was down 8% (from 28% to 23%) and in March I dipped down to 20%. Progress!

The key for me has been taking control of email (which is easier said than done). Here’s what I’ve done.

It’s easier to keep going than it is to start

I try to be intentional about my daily schedule. It’s easy to let email be that thing that determines how your day is going and what projects you are working on. I try to plan my day before I sit down in front of the computer. Nothing formal, just an idea in my head.

Just like breakfast is the most important meal of the day, for me, the morning is the most productive time of the day - If I let it be. I find that I get more accomplished if I have a specific project to work on when I arrive at the office. I may check email if I am expecting updates related to the project but I determine not to let anything in my inbox derail me from the project at hand. I then turn off my email and begin work on the project. This gets me focused on the project which I will work on for an extended period of time, often 90-120 minutes, depending on the scope of the project. I will then take a break and check email before continuing work on the project.

I have found that it’s easier to return to a big project later in the day than it is to get started on it cold. When I say “big project” I mean the type that will span more than one work session. Not the small project that can be completed in 60-90 minutes.

Your apps should work for you, not the other way around

In most email apps, the ability to go “offline,” without actually quitting the app, is often a difficult option to find. I recently switched to Postbox for Mac. In addition to a number of handy tools, it has an obvious offline mode option which is helpful when you need to have access to your inbox but don’t want the distractions of incoming email messages. This is a powerful way to manage email distractions and few people I know take advantage of it.

Mobile email apps are especially problematic when you are trying to be productive. They seem to be an all or nothing situation. You can either have all notifications or no notifications - which is why I recommend the Spark email app for iOS. It has a great “Smart Notifications” feature which allows you to receive notifications from the email messages that are deemed most important (based on your contacts and previously sent messages). This feature is great because you no longer receive notifications for every piece of mail, just the most important.

Why not just use the installed mail apps?

You wouldn’t use a tool simply because it came with your toolbox. If there were a tool that allowed you to get your job done quicker or more efficiently, you’d go out and buy the new tool and leave the other tool in the toolbox.

Email apps are tools. Don’t be satisfied with the apps that came with your phone or computer. Find a tool that helps make you more productive and go get it. Yes, even if it costs money.

Newsletter Overload

Finally, take control of your newsletter subscriptions. Every store, website, blog and service has a newsletter promising the world. Deals, tips, insights, white papers - you name it, they’re offering it. All you have to do is provide your email address. Before you know it, you’re getting countless email newsletters. This is the real problem with email. We indiscriminately pass out our addresses as though there are no repercussions. But, each email we have to deal with chips away at our focus and attention.

Email Unsubscribes

I decided that I had had enough of all the email newsletters that I was receiving. So, I hit unsubscribe. You know, the little link that is (often) hidden at the bottom of every email newsletter that you receive? I started hitting it. Again. And again. And again. And again. Eventually, over the course of a month I hit unsubscribe 116 times. In the image above, you can see the tally marks for each unsubscribe. By the end of the month, I had learned a number of things. First, not all unsubscribe buttons are created equal. You can tell which companies respect their customers and which consider the unsubscribe button a game to see how many they can trick into staying on the list by making the unsubscribe process needlessly complicated. Second, you can really alleviate traffic to your inbox by being more discriminating about who you give your email address to. I would highly recommend that you either set up a “newsletter only” email address or use a service like Blur which will mask your email address allowing you to keep your actual email address off of newsletter lists.

Email, the most productive distraction of all

Of all the distractions we have nowadays, email is the most productive of all of them. It really is the place where business gets done and we need to treat it like the valuable resource that it is and not just a place where communications go to die.

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  • G. Brad Hopkins
  • About Me: I bought my first computer - an Apple Performa 6320 - when I was in college and have been building websites ever since. These days I spend most of my time writing code and helping to bring interesting projects to life.
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