When I get my Scout Troop to camp, sometimes they get a little distracted. Kids would rather chop wood & poke sticks into the fire than wash dishes. They’re funny that way. I’m the kind of guy that wants to get the dishes done so that I can poke sticks into the fire without worrying about bears smelling the unwashed dishes and surprising me in the dark. I’m funny that way. Maybe that’s why it’s good to have a grown-up along – to make sure the dishes get washed.
In the professional world, of course, we’re the adults. There are many distractions at work that we have to work hard not to let pull our focus away from our real work. One of the biggest distractions is e-mail.
I was going to write a long blog posting on how this works, why it’s worse than you think, and what you can do about it. But Jeff Atwood beat me to it. He describes how e-mail can act as a variable reinforcement machine (which is why slot machines make so much money for the casinos), breaking our flow, and evoking the evil gods of multi-tasking. We think we’re being effective and efficient by keeping on top of our e-mail continuously. In reality we’re making ourselves as unproductive as possible.
Because we’re adults, we need to manage our interruptions. For e-mail the best ways to do this are:
- Shut Off Notifications – turn off all visual an auditory cues of a newly arrived e-mail. Even the little “you have mail” icon in the system tray is a distraction.
- Schedule Time to Process – a half hour in the morning and a half hour in the afternoon works well for me. Set a time and stick to the goal of getting through everything in your in-box in that time. I use David Allen’s two-minute rule. If you can’t deal with in two minutes, schedule a separate time or set up a task to deal with it.
- Set Up Filters – There’s a lot of mail we get that we know we can do without reading just by seeing who it’s from or what the subject line is. Set up filters to delete or file these. Some experts even suggest just filing everything that you’re cc’d (carbon copied) or bcc’d(blind carbon copied) on, on the assumption that if it’s not directly addressed to you that you’re not expected to do anything about it.
- Stop Sending Email – It’s not necessary to reply to every e-mail. E-mail isn’t always the appropriate response to every e-mail. The phone is better for issues that need an immediate response. Face-to-face talking with a real person is better for complicated, multi-person, or emotional discussion. E-mail is not always the most effective nor efficient mode of communication.
E-mail has many drawbacks, not the least of which that it’s notoriously easy to mis-interpret. There is no tone of voice, facial expression, body language, nor gestures, which is 80% of face-to-face communications. Consider this: even people blind from birth gesture when they talk. If it’s that important, do you really want your message misinterpreted?