Your email inbox is one of the most inefficient work channels because it is distracting, decreases productivity and encourages multitasking. Yet most of us don’t even know this.
Here’s the thing.
We have a prehistoric brain living in a digital age.
Our brains are hardwired to be distracted. Being distracted by subtle sights and sounds in our periphery served us well from an evolutionary perspective. 10,000 years ago, if we were out collecting berries in the Savannah it was imperative to notice the rustles in the bushes and to check whether we needed to run from a potential threat. And in today’s digital age our brains are still processing distractions in the same way.
But now instead of a rustle in the bushes, the distractions are often the pings, dings and pop ups associated with email alerts. Noticing the distractions is no longer saving our lives – it’s breaking our focus, leading to multitasking and creating increased inefficiencies.
Did you know that once distracted it can take between 15-25 minutes to return our thinking to where it was before we were interrupted? And, once our chain of thought is broken we are more likely to check for a new email and continue to be distracted.
To make matters worse, email and all forms of online communication has an addictive element. Brain scans show that dopamine is released when we notice a new message. Because of the dopamine, our brains actively want to seek out new messages. This explains why when we notice a new email or phone alert, we lose focus from the work we were doing and open that new message.
So what can we do to overcome email distractions and the lure to multitask?
Here are seven practical ways to stay out of your inbox:
1. Turn off new message alerts.
Go to the settings of your email program and deselect the new mail notifications. To do this in Outlook, go to the File tab, select Options, then Mail and Message Arrival. Removing the new message alerts is the first step to minimising email distractions. If you do nothing else, do this!
2. Completely close your email program.
If your task at hand doesn’t require you to review your emails, tasks or calendar – remove all distractions by closing your email program. Whilst you are at it, turn your mobile to flight mode, or at least turn it to silent and keep it out of sight.
3. Work offline.
When the work you are focussing on requires you to go into your email program (e.g. to send an email and/or review saved emails or your calendar) select work ‘offline’ mode. Then you will only receive new mail when you hit the send-receive button. I always turn to offline mode when I process my emails – that way you can empty your inbox before new emails arrive. (Note the offline function can vary with different server configurations.)
4. Use a to-do list that is NOT your inbox.
Don’t leave emails in your inbox as prompts to get things done. It is highly difficult to prioritise and very distracting. If you use Outlook then use Tasks as your to-do list.
The ‘only handle it once’ (OHIO) discipline creates the habit of reading each email once and immediately organising what needs to be done with it. The 4Ds of decision making (delete, do it now, delegate or defer) provides a great framework for processing emails.
6. Process emails at specific times of the day.
The optimum daily number of times to process your emails is dependent on the nature of your work. Four times a day works well for most people: morning, just before lunch, mid-afternoon and before finishing for the day. The key is not to just read your emails, but process them using the OHIO method mentioned above.
7. Keep a log.
Email is addictive! Keeping a log for a couple of weeks gave me the data to prove that when I checked my email less often and more intentionally, I saved time.
To see just how much time you waste looking at your inbox, keep a log for two or three weeks, noting how often and how long you spend in your inbox. You’ll be surprised how much time you lose revisiting it during your day.
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