The Big Three Distractions (2 of 3)
The inbox unboxed; a life of email = 400 books of writing
It’s hard to write insightfully about email and the inbox since so much has already been said. It’s been around for 50 years and popular for the past 20. More than half the world’s population use email. Knowledge workers spend 28% of their working lives on it. Taking the generally accepted assumptions of 25 fifty-word emails a day for the 250 working days of the year and doing this for 50 years, we write close to 20 million words via email. That’s ~400 books.
You are engaged in the very act, right now.
We use it so much because the concept and practice of email is stunning: near-instant, asynchronous short- or long-form communication with any of 4.5 billion human beings. We use it to instruct, inform, verify, notify, sell, buy, collaborate, learn and much more.
Email is brilliant. But our use of it is not.
At any given moment, an email might bring some kind of benefit: a promotion, pay rise, information, news, gossip, attention. Human beings have a mechanism rooted deeply in our psychology and survival instincts which seeks and keeps seeking out potential reward. These rewards are the ‘dopamine hits’ alluded to by writers on the subject.
The problem for almost all of us, then, is that throughout the day we are at least partially distracted, by the emails we get or might get. We check our inbox when in the middle of more urgent and important tasks. Work gets delayed. We look at an unrelated email during a meeting, and become less engaged thereafter. We fret when we don’t get enough emails. Most of all, email’s permanent, insidious influence makes us feel anxious, not in control; it diminishes our sense of agency.
Consider this simple, crude, illustration. An typical hour of work life: a 30-minute meeting followed by 30 minutes of email. If you stick to this plan, your performance might be a solid 8/10 throughout. But if you instinctively check your email halfway through the meeting and become distracted, your performance is sure to dip for a while and take a little while to recover thereafter. Let’s say performance drops to a 4/10 for 30 minutes before getting back to an 8. Equating achievement or productivity to be performance level over time, the drop is 25% over the hour. Argue with me about the numbers all you like but it will be hard to argue that gratuitous, ill-timed email checking doesn’t knock productivity pretty hard. And then there’s the additional knock to our happiness, satisfaction and feeling of control.
Yet we continue to peep at our inbox in these moments of boredom and weakness. Of course, we do eventually need to attend to that email but we should do so at our convenience on our own terms without slowing ourselves down, not when the sender happens to have hit Send.
Most people know what the solution is, broadly: fix the site, set some rules, improve the writing. But few of us do it and stick to it. Let’s run through each.
First, choose when and for how long you want to be emailing. Settle in and get through as many of your outstanding emails as you can in one go. Some call this email batching. It’s also a particular case of timeboxing. If you do this and stick to it, the permanently perturbing spectre of email is replaced by a straightforward pact to attend to it at the few times you choose over the course of your day.
Scheduling email timeboxes is one part of this. Inspecting your current behaviour is another. What, exactly, keeps getting you back to your inbox? The raw impulse to check? A phone notification? The new_email_count in your browser? Find out what they are and make them harder to see, hear or feel — make your awareness unassailable with respect to email news. Make bad habit less easy. This is one of the main mantras of habit experts BJ Fogg and James Clear.
Second, when you do tackle email, set up some rules — make your own algorithm. The 2-minute rule, OHIO, the four Ds and others all have their benefits and drawbacks but picking and sticking to some set of simple rules (algorithm) is very handy — so you’re not constantly second-guessing yourself as you make your way through them.
Third, make the world a better place by sending better emails. Fewest words to the fewest people. Bullet points. Be clear about the task and the deadline. The title should be efficacious in itself. Consider whether email is the right medium (eg if there’s a whiff of controversy, it probably isn’t). Ros Atkins (of BBC explainer and drumnbass fame) recently wrote The Art of Explanation and gives some sound advice on email, specifically, in this LinkedIn post.
Next week: your phone 📱