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Don't Open Email Unless You're Ready to Act On It

September 26, 2018

Author: Bianca Yang
Email: ipacifics@gmail.com

I once had a colleague tell me that they sometimes open their email before they get to the office. That sounds like a reasonably normal behavior, since most employees have an email client with their work email linked to their phones or personal computers. The problem with his behavior is that he doesn’t act upon his email. Later, when he’s in the office, he will likely reread those emails he opened before work and take action against them. Why not improve your productivity by only reading your email once?

I find the act of opening, reading, and responding to email to be largely useless and highly disruptive. Work doesn’t get done in email (or Slack, as much as their ads would like to claim otherwise); it gets done off-line. Most work happens without explicit collaboration. People work on things on their own time, with clear expectations as to when all pieces must be aggregated for final review. What email does is distract you from working on your objectives and exposes you to all the objectives everybody else has. You may receive an email from people on some machine learning distribution list asking if anybody knows how to use the latest Azure data science virtual machine. You may receive email from your boss asking people to RSVP to a team happy hour for Friday. You may receive email from this week’s DRI (directly responsible individual, or person who is on call) asking for help resolving some customer’s issue with your service. Regardless of the ask, the probability that what they’re asking is directly related to or useful to your current set of objectives is very low.

The act of opening email is also distracting. You can certainly search something like “rapid switching between tasks” to understand the neurological disaster that task switching causes in your brain. Email isn’t the only culprit; I’m focusing on it for the sake of this post.

So don’t open email unless you’re ready to act on it. And don’t open email frequently throughout the day. Regulate yourself by enforcing periods for non-connectivity and focused work. It takes time to get into a flow, so perhaps think about blocking out minimum half-hour periods to dive deep into your priorities. Within the half-hour, you cannot access any sources of distraction. For example, that may require blocking your email client, your FB client, your Slack/Teams client, or YouTube. The act of blocking out distractions will clear your head and make you calmer, all good things if you want to make big decisions or get big things done.

To summarize, take a step towards better mental health and productivity by not opening email until you’re ready to act on it and restricting your email usage.