How to Stop Getting Distracted by Emails

Email and Focus

by sscheper on March 23, 2010

Why you should read this chapter

There’s thousands of applications out there for email productivity. You’ll find long sales letter pages preaching the next “magic bullet” or “ultimate email productivity success system.” Yet, most productivity applications do a better job in confusing chaos than solving chaos.

It’s clear that email is taking over a significant portion of our lives, but what is not clear is how to actually prevent emails from taking over our lives.

Effective email use is simple.

I’m not going to throw 10 steps, 19 processes and 51 apps at you that promise to make your email time more productive.

Why? Because that ends up confusing things.

In the chapter below, we’ll outline the simple philosophy and steps to getting the most out of email in the least amount of time.

Glorified Emailers

We’ve shifted from a society of artists and specialists to one that stares at digital pixels all day.

In April 2008, the New York Times published an article which uncovered that nearly a third of one’s work day is spent on irrelevant items and distractions such as email. What’s more, the Radicati Group found that the average person is on track to spend nearly half of their day staring at email.

Our innovation and information has quadrupled over the past century. But why hasn’t our value grown proportionally? If our innovation has sky-rocketed, why hasn’t our effectiveness sky-rocketed? What happened to the concept of peace-of-mind?

Looking at the late nineties and early twenty-first century, our innovation within the information realm outshines the industrial age. It’s absolutely staggering. The wealth of available information on demand, as well as our ability to communicate anytime, anywhere, is absolutely insane. Yet, amidst this firestorm of information innovation, we’ve lost touch with what truly adds value to the world, and what truly makes us different than computers. Our creator didn’t put us on earth to process inputs and spit out outputs. We are here to think, to shape, to give and to create.

The way we use email endangers our purpose. It threatens our potential to innovate and create art. Email constantly attacks your focus. For this reason, you must learn how to make email work for you. This chapter will show you how.

Are you an email farmer or an email hunter?

Have you ever driven home from work, and wondered what you actually did that day? You question if you even did anything productive. You fear you were just busy with items that were good for one thing: keeping you busy.

Don’t beat yourself up. It’s OK. We all go through the thought-process above every once in a while. However, the key centers on knowing when and how to correct this. A day filled with shooting the breeze with employees, answering questions, staring at emails, checking social networks and chatting with colleagues won’t make you rich. It’ll make you busy. There’s too much information flying at us, and in order to fulfill your purpose, you must learn to respectfully say no, and decline distraction.

Many of the innovations within our information revolution are valuable–they’re meaningful, and can actually add significance to the world. Yet, we rarely work as if email is simply a maintenance tool for creating. We use it as a substitute for creating.

Instead of using email like a farmer (maintain crops); we try and use email like a hunter (try and get business). Your goal should be to use email like a farmer, not a hunter.

Use life as the platform to hunt and bring in business, not email.

In order to master the art of sifting through email, and not getting distracted by irrelevant items, we’ll first outline the nature of email itself. We’ll then outline an appropriate philosophy towards email and then show you the process of batching email.

The Nature of Email

Email is a radically different form of communication than any other form. It combines two elements that make it less personal than other forms of communication: 1. lack of time, and 2. lack of personality.  Other forms of communication like meeting up with people, mailing somebody a letter or picking up the phone to call someone possesses at least one of those two elements. Email is instant. And with less time spent writing an email, also comes less meaning. Yet, this is fine–if you understand the nature of email, that is.

A person gets more meaning, and a bigger smile from a phone call than an email. Same goes for meeting in person. Why? Because you’ve invested actual time in delivering the message. Time is not only money; time is value. As you invest time with someone, you’re also investing value in that relationship.

Email is a different beast. Here are 3 characteristics of email. Understanding these characteristics will help you to put your interpretation of email into perspective:

1. Emails usually aren’t emergencies

Emails may be emergencies in the mind of the sender; but if you take a step back, an email message isn’t going to contain life or death information. And if it does, you should definitely have a talk with the person sending such an email–because they’re nuts.

2. Bite-sized clarifications or confirmations

Email isn’t an appropriate medium for negotiating, agreeing on items or correcting term sheets. You’ll be wasting a lot of time if you try and get negotiations done over email. Not only does it take longer to read through the others response, you’ll also have to wait for him or her to get back to you. Unless they’re addicted to email, the lag time can get long, and annoying. After a certain point within an email thread, it’s wise to just pick up the phone and give the person a call. (And by pick up the phone, I mean work or home phone in my case–because I’ve forgone my cell phone.)

3. Emails aren’t insightful

Emails are worse than reading a children’s book because at least children’s books contain words, and are proof-read. If you’re spending half your day staring at digital jargon, guess what you’ll end up spewing out to others throughout the day? Digital jargon.

We’ll dive into how exactly you should counter this mass of emails, and filter out the good from the bad, but first, you must have a solid philosophy and mindset towards email.

Your Philosophy Towards Email

Your philosophy and attitude towards email determines how productive you are using email.

There’s hundreds of tips out there that confuse things. They call these tips, “Hacks” or “Applications” or “Plugins.” You’ll find tools that suggest setting up advanced filters, having email sync with certain applications, through setting emails up through an army of assistants, or all of them combined.

Here’s the thing: no piece of software can improve your email productivity. Only your attitude can.

Mastering email isn’t complex, and doesn’t warrant thousands of applications and books written about it. Some email guides are excellent; yet, some are filled with noise and applications that add zero value to your life. They actually end up hurting your productivity. The key with leveraging email for productivity is first founded on your philosophy and attitude towards email itself. If you hate email, you’ll become more productive in using email.

There are many famous authors, bloggers and celebrities that proudly declare that they answer every one of their emails. The only problem with this centers on their response. It’s usually watered down. And more, they tend to wear themselves out. You’ll find that these people are constantly tied to their Blackberries. They check email every five minutes. Here’s the irony: the people that check their email throughout the day end up being less productive; yet they reason that they do so in the first place because it makes them more productive.

If they looked at the data, they’d see that the antithesis was true. Research cites that multitasking actually slows down your productivity.

Then why do they check email throughout the day?

Typically, when you have something that is proven to harm your productivity, yet people still swear by it, there’s one thing involved: entertainment. And guess what people are addicted to? Entertainment. Believe it or not, some people find checking email entertaining. I did at one point in my life. Research shows that you get a dopamine kick when your mind is entertained–and you can become entertained through email. People love getting email notifications because they love getting noticed. A private message that is aimed directly at them excites them; and this excitement leads them to constantly check email.

For this reason, your philosophy towards email shouldn’t be based on pleasure. Email should equal pain. It should be seen as spring cleaning. You let the dirt build, and then crank it out and clean it up within a day.

The Three Types of Emailers

There’s really three ways that people interact with email.

Person One: Billy Blackberry

Checking email hundreds of times per day. Leaving the unimportant ones unread; and then after about a month or so, clearing every email out.

Person Two: Casual Cassandra

Checking email casually about a dozen times per day, and leaving some items unread so that you can do it later (many of us are in this stage)

Person Three: Betty Batcher

This centers on checking email only 2-4 times per day. It involves clearing out hundreds of messages within 5-10 minutes. After which, your inbox will read “0.”

For the purpose of becoming more effective, it’s best to adopt strategy three. We all need to become a Betty Batcher. I will now show you how.

3 Steps to Mastering Email Productivity for Your Entire Life

As stated above, the concept of developing productive email habits is simple. So, I’ll jump straight to it now:

1. Set a schedule

When I first set out to make email as productive as possible, I made the mistake of simply telling myself to check email less than five times per day. I didn’t define a schedule. I ended up checking email less frequently than I normally did, but I didn’t develop the productivity that I could have developed. Thus, in order to actually make this process work, you’ll need to clearly define two times per day when you’ll check email.

Here’s my schedule:

  • Monday through Friday: 10am and 3pm
  • Weekends: Check personal email once per day, and don’t check work email at all

2. If you’ve left an item unread, you fail

Before outlining the principles of effective email use below, please understand that the key with avoiding procrastination centers on processing every single email, and taking a specific action with it. Choosing to not do anything will hurt your productivity. There are four actions that you must take when processing email:

  1. Delete
  2. Delegate
  3. Add to your to-do list
  4. Do it now

The action you must avoid is leaving item marked unread. If you’ve left an item unread, you fail. You’ve procrastinated.

3. The three questions

Below is the process that will allow you to conquer email, and make email a productive, swift time for getting things done.

Flowchart for Email

That’s it. It’s simple, yet takes some practice to implement effectively.

Advanced Email Tools

You may find these tips obvious or common sense. They are. The philosophy above reassures the simplicity you thought email was all about. As I said above, you should avoid guides like, “47 Gmail Hacks from Google Labs.” However, if you have a problem that’s a bit more complicated, or an email system that’s already a mess, I suggest reading some guides that share the philosophy outlined above, yet they also provide you with advanced tips in the case that your email system is out of control. You may want to check out Jared Goralnick’s guide to Not Checking Email. You’ll find that many of the philosophies outlined above are very similar in nature. In fact, whether you’re reading The Four Hour Work Week, Inbox Zero or Getting Things Done, you’ll find they all outline a similar philosophy. Why? Because it works.

Conclusion

Best of luck in your journey in conquering email. Though the idea is simple, it’s easier said than done. As always, please tell me your thoughts and share your experiences through the comments below.

Additional advanced resources and Links:

Email Filter Guides by Service (for advanced use of email–when you want to filter messages):


IMPORTANT: If you enjoyed this article, I'd like for you to experience much more by purchasing the book. You can check out via Paypal. Click here to buy the book.


{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

JK March 25, 2010 at 6:24 am

Interesting article. However, within the context of huge multinational global corporations, the 3 characteristics of email are, in my opinion, facts of life.

When a large team works mostly in a virtual global mode across time zones, email sometimes, wisely or unwisely, takes on any one of the 3 characteristics. And worse, sometimes more than one in combination.

Not the end of the world, obviously, as there are tips and training to help the global virtual team, as illustrated by some of the tips on this web site.

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Scott March 25, 2010 at 6:46 am

Good point on the Global virtual teams. I strongly believe, though, that the above philosophy works better whether you’re in the U.S., Bangladesh, East Timor or wherever. Checking email, getting a task, and knocking down that task is more effective than constantly checking email. Just my experience.

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JK March 25, 2010 at 1:15 pm

I agree. I just wanted to point out in the previous comment that there are global virtual circumstances where email is a mainstay communication method. Which is the more reason these people need to get better at doing email.

As you accurately pointed out: “… no piece of software can improve your email productivity. Only your attitude can. Mastering email isn’t complex …”

Simple things like below (you listed some of these already) can go a long way, even if one use a simple email software.
- Turn off the new email notifier
- Don’t check for new email all the time or set schedules
- Categorise or label or tag or flag or whatever your software does
- Sometimes it is useful to get the software to differentiate if I am a recipient of the email as addressee or as cc

Equally important is what I do with / write in the email or reply. I learned the hard way that I can spend expensive time and, sometimes, relationship currency due to what I write.
- Try not to reply while being tired or angry
- Try to be structured in writing the email (it’s not Twitter)
- Don’t cc people who do not need it

I am sure we all can come up with more bullets, if given the time. Maybe I will write about it as well some day.

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Scott March 25, 2010 at 9:15 pm

Awesome insight, JK. Thank you very much for that input! I’ll hopefully find a place to add that in the chapter (and credit you, of course!)

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Andy Levy-Stevenson March 26, 2010 at 6:04 am

I’m curious what you do about filing email.

Your (excellent) strategy for processing emails rather presupposes that an incoming email triggers a task that you’ll either delegate, do , or defer.

What do you do with emails that contain reference materials, instructions, directions, policies, that sort of thing?

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Scott March 26, 2010 at 7:11 am

Awesome question, Andy. I use gmail, so I’ve made it a habit to Filter emails that I get on a continual basis, and then have Gmail automatically mark them as read and add a label to it.

For instance, if I get a Netflix reminder, I have it marked as read and then sent to my “Entertainment” label.

If I get one for Twitter, it gets marked as read and send to my ” Social Media” label.

And on, and on with others.

I was contemplating putting labeling up there, but I wanted to start with the easy/basics first.

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Andy Levy-Stevenson March 26, 2010 at 7:18 am

My system is similar … I suspect I label and keep far too many messages. But since it largely happens automatically, I’m not too bothered about it.

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Scott March 26, 2010 at 8:09 am

Yea, Andy, honestly I’ve only begun using the labeling and filtering system very recently. I used to use it every once in a while; but I’ve decided to make it an everyday action. I simply find any message that shouldn’t have passed through, and click “Add Action” within the Gmail, and then click “Filter Messages Like this” It’s quite swift, and quite nice. After about a month or so of this, I find it’s actually working, but still, it crowds up my inbox (even though it’s marked as read).

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Lee March 26, 2010 at 7:18 am

Andy, I’m anxious for the response to your question, too. I spend too much time filing email containing reference materials, instructions, etc., acknowledging that my memory is failing me.

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Scott March 26, 2010 at 8:10 am

Hey Lee — What do you mean by filing email? Do you use gmail, or are you filing it using Outlook? I’d love to try and help you out, and if not, point you to a resource that may help you out.

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Lee March 29, 2010 at 5:56 am

Thanks, Scott. Using Outlook, as an Admin, I manually move appropriate email to folders, keeping the latest one in the thread (incoming or sent). Sometimes I just save, say, large attachments to my M Drive. It’s all time consuming though. Is there a better way?

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Ryan March 26, 2010 at 7:41 pm

I liked the article, and overall I think I agree with its main points. I have a tendency to let my desk get cluttered with physical papers and was introduced to a paper handling system called OHIO which stands for only handle it once. Essentially documents are either acted on immediately, filed appropriately in a cabinet, or thrown away. However I disagree with the notion of limiting the number of times email is checked. In my office the expectation is that if you are in the office email should be acted upon immediately. I would face disciplinary action if I got an email at 4:15 and didn’t take action on it until reading it the next day.

I also can’t stand voicemail. I think the telephone beats email only if you are able to reach a live person. Most voicemail I get invariably references a message sent by email. In fact I now use Google Voice, and so I never listen to voicemail, if you leave me a voice message it gets transcribed and dropped in my email inbox.

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Scott March 27, 2010 at 7:50 am

Hey Ryan — I really like OHIO. That’s an excellent system. I was in the same boat, but I guess I implemented the OHIO technique without ever knowing what it was called.

As for facing disciplinary action, you’ve obviously got to position it as a way for you to get more productive.

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Mark March 27, 2010 at 10:35 am

I have gradually weaned myself off of email, but there is a strange side effect.

By not replying quickly, and ignoring emails that are way out of bounds, and moving really important stuff to Skype, and only checking email twice a day, I find I don’t have as many people emailing me time-wasting emails. Sounds like a dream!

Except…

I went up to both my main email accounts today, and found the oddest thing: nothing but spam. No emails from friends, no “urgent” emails from coworkers, no random tasks.

I got my wish. And yet, I feel strangely alone and forgotten.

It’s almost like, don’t use email, and email won’t use you either…

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Scott March 29, 2010 at 6:42 am

Mark — I’m undergoing a very similar feeling. It’s taken me a couple months, but I’ve gotten used to not having constant favors creep into my inbox. It’s quite nice. I balance this out because I’m usually meeting up with new people or old friends about every other day. Also, if I worked from home, things would be a different matter.

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Jared Goralnick March 30, 2010 at 6:39 pm

You’ve done a really great job on this. I love seeing the way your book is coming together, and you’ve really captured a lot of great techniques for email processing here. Awesome stuff!

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Scott March 31, 2010 at 8:14 am

Hey Jared — Thanks! Really appreciate it. Just stating what’s worked for me. Obviously, a lot of these techniques came from trying and mixing tools of people and ideas I’ve been influenced by (like David Allen, Inbox zero and yourself!)

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Rachel R. April 18, 2010 at 6:49 pm

What I’m lacking, that’s keeping me from making this work effectively, is that I can’t figure out what do with the emails that will take longer than 2 minutes to deal with, while I’m waiting for the appropriate time to deal with them. So…what do you DO with these emails while they’re waiting for replies, or research to be able to reply properly, etc.? And do you write every individual email requiring an action on your physical to-do list, or do you have something akin to “answer emails” on your to-do list, and someplace to keep these that you will know what you need to deal with all at once? (I’m not sure I even worded that last part so that it makes sense.)

In other words, in processing through the flow chart, I have no difficulty with the “delete,” or even the “do it now” emails, but the “add to to-do list” emails still throw me.

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Scott April 18, 2010 at 8:39 pm

Hey Rachel —

Great question. For the “add to to-do list,” I think I understand what you’re saying. I write each email out on the to-do list, and make sure it’s marked as “read” within the email (again, don’t leave anything unread). But, if there are some similar items, feel free to batch it.

For instance, in my email inbox, this comment came in, as well as a couple other comments. Within my to-do planner, I wrote, “Answer Comments.”

I didn’t write out every single commentors name; I used a healthy batching process :-)

There’s usually two actions (not to get too confusing) with this process that are optional.

1) If it’s going to take me a long time to do, I don’t want to leave the person hanging. Thus, I’ll shoot a quick email like “Thanks, [name]. I’ll put it on my to-do list and look into it later.”

2) If it’s an insanely long email (one or more paragraphs), and it’s worth it, set up a call. “Hey [Name] — Are you free’d up for a call tomorrow? If so, shoot me three available times.”

Hope that helped a little. Again, it’s not a stringent process. It’s very organic. You’ll develop a style, system and way to adequately sift through these.

Last, if you have too many projects going on, don’t hesitate to delegate, or just say no to things coming in.

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Rachel R. April 19, 2010 at 11:59 am

Very helpful; thank you!

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JK April 20, 2010 at 2:38 pm

Let me build on Scott’s suggestions.

On #1, don’t just shoot a reply email that you will work on it, but first flag/star it (depending on your email application) and then actually schedule something in your calendar to work on it. For example, I create an appointment (with myself) to block an appropriate time in my schedule to work on the to-do; and to make it easy on myself, I attach the email in the calendar appointment so I don’t have to hunt for it when the schedule comes. Oh yeah, if it turns out to be not urgent and I have more urgent thing, I may reschedule the appointment with myself to work on it later.

On #2, similar to above and assuming you and the sender are on the same / compatible calendaring system, schedule the appointment directly by looking up the free schedule of the sender. While at it, if you need another expert / decision maker involved, add the person to the meeting invite.

The benefits of this approach are: (a) you get it out of your way but you are not going to forget it, and (b) you actually will have the time to do it.

Cheers

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henry July 20, 2010 at 10:50 pm

your so right. I loved this!

henry@bonnycastle.us

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alfiesaden January 4, 2012 at 3:01 am

hi – is it just me !! can any one explain why when i type in the bing browser “howtogetfocused.com” i get a different site yet whe i type it in google its ok? could this be a bug in my system or is any one else having same probs ?
sadensy

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Alistair Cockroft November 8, 2012 at 1:34 am

Seems a bit odd to be replying to a post from a couple of years ago but I was looking for some tips for colleagues and stumbled across this superb flowchart which is certainly still relevant. I already practice this so it’s great to see that other people find it effective. The only slight differences in my own process are that I use a mind-map in-between the inbox and my to-do list – that lets me keep my to-do list down to one or two urgent and important tasks each day but park the other work in the mind-map under the relevant project branch (I also then prioritise the mind-map so that essentially creates my to-do list) – a bit overkill maybe but works well for me and knowing that I’m on top of my work free’s my brain up to commit to the task in hand.

One other recent discovery I’ve made which is proving very powerful is to turn off automatic sending of emails. As more and more people become part of the instant response culture it’s all too easy to get sucked into an email conversation over the course of a day. By only sending emails at certain points of the day (5pm if I really need a clear day, maybe noon too on a quieter day) I can control the flow of emails coming back to me. Oh and if you have something really important to send simply drag the emails from the outbox to your drafts folder, send the important one and then drag them back from your drafts folder into your outbox again).

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