I’m such a rebel. Recently I’ve been in a phase of deliberately reversing typical productivity advice – by asking to be interrupted, for example – and getting great results with it.
My latest experiment is not batching the time I spend on email. And what’s more – and I feel naughty even typing this – having it visible on my screen at all times.
What is this madness? Let me explain…
Where batching doesn’t work
The typical productivity advice is to only check email a couple of times per day. Basically, this is deliberately slowing email down and treating it like old-fashioned snail mail: it arrives in a batch, you process that batch, then you go about your day.
This makes perfect sense in theory, but it’s psychologically hard to do in practice. So hard, in fact, that some modern email clients (and various Gmail plugins) have introduced features to make it easier by hiding your email away and only releasing it into your inbox at specific pre-set times.
Why’s it so hard to maintain this discipline that we need digital help? These were the reasons for me:
- I’ll keep needing to check my email for things like password resets and access codes in the course of my non-email work, and while I’m doing that I can’t help seeing other messages
- There are time-sensitive messages I’m waiting to receive because it has some bearing on the action I take that day, so I can’t help but check
- I’m weak, OK? It’s so tempting to check because there might be something really important in there, and it’s the perfect way to procrastinate while still feeling productive if I hit a block with what I’m doing
There are tricks to overcome these: I’ve experimented with many and had some success.
But there’s another drawback I found with batching: if I do find the discipline to leave my email unchecked for most of the day, a whole bunch of messages have built up by the time I look. This is, in fact, the point. But now processing the batch and replying has become a whole big task – a task I don’t want to do, and which involves context-switching between all manner of different projects and mindsets as I move from one message to the next.
Rather than using mental discipline and software tools to paper over the drawbacks and overcome my own weakness, how about leaning into it instead?
Essential prep for anti-batching: Aggressively unsubscribe
An inherent problem with email is it dumps many different types of message into one place, and leaves you to differentiate between them:
- Emails that you need/want to reply to or do something with
- Interesting information you’ve signed up to read, but don’t need to do anything with (like newsletters)
- Semi-spam from companies you’ve interacted with, who then needily keep on writing to you like an ex who just won’t take a hint
It’s critical to separate these three categories from each other if you’re going to be checking email regularly, because otherwise you’ll keep being distracted by messages that have a 0% chance of being important or actionable. Many email clients will attempt to do this for you (like Gmail’s “Promotions” tab), but there are too many miscategorisations for it to be useful for me. Here’s how I do it manually:
- I have a specific email address that I use to sign up to all newsletters I want to read. This doesn’t feed into my main inbox, so I only see the newsletters when I deliberately check this email address because I want to read them
- I aggressively unsubscribe from the “semi-spam”. I spent about a week going and “managing my preferences” with companies I do want to hear from so I don’t get unnecessary alerts and marketing messages, and unsubscribing from those I’m no longer interested in at all
This leaves me with just the messages I need to reply to or do something with. And maybe I’m just unpopular, but it turns out that these make up a tiny fraction of all the emails I used to receive.
The final frontier: Constant visibility
A major time-suck of email for me was “just having a quick look to see if there’s anything important”. It involved either switching tabs, or (more usually) needing to fire up my email software anew because I was trying to be disciplined by keeping it closed.
The solution? Keep my inbox constantly visible so there’s no checking to be done at all. I know, it sounds crazy: isn’t that just hyper-distracting? It could be, but remember: by now, I don’t actually get much email.
Previously, most of the distraction was in the mental battle of thinking “hmm…maybe there’s something interesting”, battling against the urge to check, giving in, loading it up to check…then finding there was nothing interesting at all. Now, I know there’s nothing interesting most of the time.
I started doing this when I finally got a big widescreen monitor, so I can keep my inbox open on just a small part of my overall workspace. When I’m focused on a task, I don’t notice it’s there. But when I’m feeling distractible, I just flick my eyes across to it…and either there’s nothing there after all (the norm), or there is.
The line that must never be crossed: Notifications
The point of having my inbox always visible is that I get to be distracted on my terms: I can choose when to take a half-second peek.
Notifications though? No thanks! It blows my mind how often I’m having a call with someone and they’re accompanied by a non-stop chorus of beeps, pings and chirps. How can they get anything done? For email and every other app and service I use, I turn notifications firmly off: maybe there’s a helpful use-case occasionally, but I struggle to think of one.
So by now I don’t get much email, and I can easily see the messages I need to reply to. The final step is…actually replying.
Given that I see each email very soon after it comes in, I have a few choices about how to deal with it:
- Reply or take the action needed almost instantly if it’ll take under a minute and it won’t disrupt what I’m doing
- Keep it in mind for when I’m next working on something related (for example, I see an email about something in my property portfolio so I’ll wait until I was planning to be doing another property-related task anyway)
- Add it to my calendar or my to-do list if it’s something bigger, or I need to call someone
- Just leave it, and mop it up along with similarly random messages in a “mini-batch” late in the day when I’ve done all my main tasks
The slight drawback is that if you reply to someone within a couple of minutes, you both look like a manic who’s constantly refreshing their inbox because they’ve got nothing better to do and make it more likely that you’ll get another email soon. The ideal solution is to use the feature of your email software (if it has it) that delays sending for an interval of time you specify: it gets it out of your way, but you preserve the illusion that you’re a jolly busy and important person.
About a month in, this is working wonderfully for me: email is something that just fits into natural gaps in my day rather than building up to be a whole draining and irritating task.
Would it work for you too? Quite possibly not. But the broader point is this: just because everyone agrees on the “best practice” way to do something doesn’t mean it’s right for you.
In most cases, it’s highly likely that a group of smart people have worked out a better way than you’ve come to by just fumbling along on your own – so it’s well worth giving that approach a try. But until something is perfect, treat it as an experiment and make low-risk changes even if they seem unpopular or counter-intuitive.