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Inbox Zero: Schedule email dashes

This post is part of the Inbox Zero series.

I've counseled (ad nauseum) on the dangers of leaving your email app set to autocheck more often than every 15 minutes or so. Apart from generating an appalling number of pointless interruptions, persistent autocheck can also condition you into some really weird habits.

Perhaps worst of all, you begin to think of your email program primarily as a delivery and notification system -- a kind of communications slot machine whose hopeful beeping and lightshows habituate you into thinking "just one more pull...."

And, let's be honest. If you've been procrastinating a boring project all afternoon, what could be more attractive than that little "beep" and the possibility that you just got an email from that really cute girl in Finance -- or maybe even got added to some rock star's My Space. It could happen. Better go check!

In which you literally save the company every few minutes

This kind of "always on" approach to email (taken to extremes with those poor bastards praying into their Blackberries all day) has become a way of life for many of us. The idea of not checking email for 30 minutes can cause hives, twitching, and minor bodily leakage. "What if I 'miss' something?" And in some jobs, sure, it's a requirement; you actually are so integral to your company's existence that your electronic absence for 10 contiguous minutes might cause NASDAQ de-listing, financial ruin, and the immediate firing of that really cute girl from Finance. Fine. Understood. Skip the rest of this, and get back to your impossibly important job, Mr. Trump.

The problem in my observation, is that "always on" email checkers have a tendency not only to blow a lot of unnecessary time and attention on scanning the horizon, but that the quality of their resulting email work often suffers. When you're treating all messages as equally ephemeral bagatelles -- focusing more on getting the email than actually doing anything useful with it -- you can easily end up with bloated piles of scanned (but unprocessed) messages and a greasy trail of half-finished drafts. Are you checking the email, Yakov, or is it checking you?

There's a relatively easy and dependable way out of this that's likely to increase your productivity and help keep your inbox more sustainably manageable, but it starts with some honesty and a keen distinction.

Breaking it down

Assuming for a moment that email work is actually comprised of a few distinct but related tasks, how often do you realistically need to do each of these things? Estimates are fine, and coming up with your own definitions of email task work is fine, too.

  1. Checking for/being notified of any new email -- even dumb stuff
  2. Scanning your new messages for items needing time-critical input from you
  3. Quickly responding to the time-critical items
  4. Processing "the pile" into actions, calendar events, and messages in need of a short response only
  5. Responding to new and non-critical messages that have accumulated
  6. Performing occasional metawork like mailbox refactoring, rules tweaking, etc.

If your answer to each of these is "Yes! Now! Always! Now! ON!" then there's not much that can be done to help you. Sorry. The good news is that you're now so plugged in that you'll be the first person to learn about your imminent infarction. So there's that.

If you're still here and intrigued, though, think about how you might be able to break off those tasks into "dashes" -- ganging your related email work into a focused few minutes of hard-edged activity performed on a regular schedule.

A straw man schedule

So, for the sake of argument, what if you thought about this for a while, provisionally decided on the least email focus you can possibly tolerate, and then were to just try experimenting with a schedule along these lines:

  1. New email check + scanning + super-fast responses: 2 minutes every 20 minutes
  2. Non-critical responses: 10 minutes or 5 emails every 90 minutes
  3. Processing "the pile": 2 minutes every hour + 15 minutes at the end of the day
  4. Metawork: 15 minutes twice a week
  5. Further culling, responding, and clearing "the pile": Through the day, as available, in 5-8 minute dashes

And apart from that? Email is off. Closed. Quit. You're doing other things. Can you do it?

Remember this is entirely up to you. You get to decide how often you do any of this. But! You do have to decide.

Benefits of the scheduled email dash

  • gets you out of the perpetual notification business
    • allowing you to focus on your non-email work without interruption or distratction
    • perchance to get some flow on!
  • gives you more contextual insight into your true priorities
    • rather than letting the existence of new mail always equate the need for your instant and undivided attention
    • slightly higher-level vantage point lets you choose richest targets in context
    • dash format forces you to wisely pick best use of your time
    • surprisingly many "crises" will resolve themselves between dashes
  • a regular schedule firewalls your time and attention
    • ensures that you won't get so absorbed in hitting "Get new mail" that the real "thinking work" gets short shrift
    • says you take your email work seriously enough to give it access to your brain as well as your eyes

As ever, "awareness" is the hack

And there's nothing that says you have set this schedule once and then never change it. You might, like me, have hours or even days where you simply have to live in your inbox. No problem. But wouldn't you rather be escalating that by choice, than by rote?

If you can get away from being driven by email's motor and find a way to deal with your work mindfully and on your own terms, you may be startled to see how much easier it is to keep that inbox at zero.

Give it three days. See if you can't just generate a little more light and a little less heat. Maybe even give that Blackberry a well-earned day off.

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