Email can very easily become a distraction wether you're working from home or you work at an office. Something as simple as a poorly-timed 'ding' can make you lose your focus. Email alerts are designed to get our attention, compelling us to want to see just what's new in that pesky inbox. But we can't just shut off our email programs or we will miss important messages, right?
The truth is our computers are much better multitaskers than we are. They can be playing you a song, while checking your email, and automatically backing up your data all while displaying and calculating vectors in your design software of choice. Just because our computers can handle all that and more without skipping a beat doesn't mean we have that capacity. Thinking about who that email might be from or what it might be about is taking mental energy away from that thing that you should be working on.
Email is important, I'm not going to deny that. As people who work in the modern world, email is basically our main source of correspondence. But the work we do is important to our jobs as well, wether that's working for someone else or running a business. You need to be deliberate with your email and be in a state of mind where you can give it your full attention. That simply isn't going to happen when you're in the middle of a project.
Over time I have worked out a strategy for dealing with email in a timely manner while also keeping myself productive. It's not by any means the perfect strategy for everybody, but I find it very helpful and I hope that you do as well.
If you have a smartphone, the first thing you should do is to turn off email notifications. The rest of the strategy is basically useless if you don't do this first. This also has the added benefit of email not barging into your personal time, which is extremely liberating. But that is a whole other topic.
While you're working, your email client should not be open. Not minimized, not hidden, it should be completely shut down! This not only silences notifications, but it prevents you from just switching over to get a quick glance at any incoming messages. If you have an email that you may need for reference while you work, paste the contents into a text document or your note-taking app of choice.
Basically, while you're working the only things that should be running on your computer are the things you need to get your work done. This includes closing down your web browser, as well as Twitter and messaging clients. If you're on OS X, open Notification Center and enable "Do Not Disturb". If you like to listen to music while you work then that is the only non-work thing that should be running.
So, now that the distraction is removed, what is the appropriate time to check email? It can vary depending on how you work, but there should be 3 times when you absolutely always check your email:
- In the morning when you turn on your computer.
- In the afternoon before or after a lunch break.
- Before you leave your office for the day.
I find these 3 times ideal because you're either in wind up or wind down mode, and those transitions are a great time to catch up on correspondence you may have missed out on.
In addition to those 3 instances, downtime is yet another time to check email. Say you're waiting for something to download, copying a large amount of files, or really anything that doesn't require your direct involvement. That's always a great situation to fire up your email client to see what's new.
Most email clients have a function known as 'flagging'. This is another great tool you should use for managing your email once you have checked it. It allows you to mark important emails that you should come back to. I used to feel like I had to "take action" on all my emails immediately, which would take more time than I really should have been spending at that moment. Now I just flag the email to deal with the next time I log in. Use this feature well. Some email clients even have a special mailbox for flagged emails so you can see them all in one place.
The truth is, there are so many different ideas out there for keeping email from having a negative impact on your productivity. Some are far more comprehensive and involved. This is just what I do, and it's worked for me. I encourage you to try this and if it doesn't work for you then seek out other resources, or even devise your own system and write about it.