Email Productivity

After giving it much thought, I think I have realized what my biggest problem with email is.

It’s distracting. Immensely distracting.

Yet, for deep work, the thing I need to have the least of is distractions. The user interface for email apps right now just don’t cut for productive work. Our tools are supposed to get out of the way of what we do, not get in the way and prevent us from working.

Initially, I might want to send a simple email. If I fire up Gmail, though, I might be confronted with other unread messages, which are an immediate distraction.

The solution I have found is to use a menu-bar emailer app that lets me send but does not let me check. There’s a number of them out there, but the one I recently purchased (for $0.99) is QuickMailer, available on the App Store. It’s true to it’s name. Click on the menu bar icon, type up your email, and go back to work without having to check other email.

But there’s more to email productivity and habits. Let me share what has worked for me over the past year of experimentation.

1. Check email only at specified times of the day

Inspiration may strike and you might find that you need to quickly email someone else. But for other things, I would suggest batching the processing of email messages. Pick a select time of the day, say, once in the morning after taking a break from your “most important work” first, and then ignore email until the end of the day. If something is urgent enough, people will call. There are days where I don’t even check email.

2. Delete any quick access to email apps

As I mentioned above, email apps are not conducive to productivity. Remove Gmail from your shortcut bar. Take out of the Mac OS Dock. Anything that will increase your temptation to fire up your email client should be removed. Unless your work involves the browser (mine does – coding in IPython notebooks), remove quick access to your browser as well.

3. Find an app that lets you send but not check email

’nuff said. See above.

4. Don’t respond if you don’t have to

Email threads that are unimportant will naturally die off. If you don’t have a need to respond, don’t. Responding will only increase one’s emotional and actual involvement in a thread.

5. Practice keeping your messages short

The more time we spend writing email means the less time devoted to our important work. Keep things business-style and keep it to the point. If you can’t keep it short and simple, don’t write that message, inform the person that you’d like a face-to-face chat instead.

6. When batching, make quick-fire decisions on the message’s fate

I have two email apps, Boxer and Mailbox, for iOS. Mailbox lets me swipe a message to be dealt with another day. Boxer lets me interface with SaneBox, which uses cool Machine Learning techniques to manage whether I see a message or not. I cannot count the number of hours I’ve saved by simply choosing to put off a message. I end up checking email for less than 30 minutes a day as a result of this.