This is a guest post from Gordon Cieplak, Creative Director at 8tracks and the principal of Handsome Code. You can find him @gordoncc on Twitter and grdn.cc on Tumblr, his preferred methods of distraction.
Email is awesome. It’s the foundation for much electronic communication. You know, after things like math, transistors, TCP/IP, etc. Basically, every tech start-up in New York is an elaborate way to send an email that says “Hey, look at me!” or “Hey, look at this stuff I like!”
That said, like most awesome technology that’s been invented, it ends up becoming more of a chore than the incredible and liberating tool that it is. But we only have ourselves to blame; the technology is not the culprit. Really, if you get lots of email and it’s an incredible pain to deal with it and you feel like a hero when you can manage things, you are not an inbox hero. You’re just technologically confused, like most of us.
If you get lots of email that must be answered, that’s a great problem, because that means that somebody values your words and judgment, and that you probably get paid for those pieces of information. Being an information worker is pretty great because it’s pays well and has relatively low occupational hazards. And though I did have quite an existential malaise at my first full-time job, I still feel quite lucky to be able to work in this type of industry.
Anyway, the point is that quite often, the most challenging part of being an information worker these days is actually getting things done and avoiding distractions, which is hard if you have access to the Internet. With the current bizarre system of online advertising, most of the Internet is literally designed to consume as many possible seconds of your time and get you to click on largely irrelevant things. On top of that, our workspaces are invaded by distractions. We get email all the time from social networks, digests from blogs, and requests from Observer writers asking you to write guest columns for them. How can you actually get anything done with all that distraction?
As it so happens, I just read a book that’s supposedly about working less and getting rich, but really it’s about how to use your computer more intelligently. It’s called The 4-Hour Workweek, by Tim Ferris, and while the tone is a little on the bro side, it does have some great advice. Mainly, close your damned email window for a second.
The second you don’t get little notifications that you have a new email, a new IM, a new like on blog, your computer suddenly becomes incredibly powerful, and you have much more time to finish all the stuff you were supposed to do.
Mr. Ferris recommends initially that you check your email twice a day. Start with 12 p.m. and 4 p.m., and deal with everything in a focused session of 10 to 15 minutes at those times. If you must, compose an auto-response telling people that you’ll get back to them at a certain time and to give you a call if it’s urgent. I didn’t bother with that because I’ve always had my number in my email footer, and nothing I do is really that important or urgent. Also, auto-responses are really, really annoying. I did get a few more calls, but on the whole nobody noticed, and while I’m not sure I’m getting more done, I am spending less time on the computer in general.
Supposedly, Mr. Ferris checks his email once a week, presumably in the form of curated summaries from his dozen virtual assistants, while training for his next extreme sports challenge or demonstrating his technique for 15 minute orgasms (see the 4-Hour Body for that one). Clearly, we can’t all roll like Tim Ferris, but I think his basic idea of closing your email most of the time is pretty great.
– Don’t use whatever ‘priority inbox’ is. Passing off more responsibility to machines is the last thing to do.
– Avoid the Gmail web UI if at all possible. You’ll get sucked into Gchat, which is an even deeper distraction.
– I recommend Sparrow if you’re on a Mac. Or Mail if you don’t want to spend $10.
– Put your number in your footer.
– Check your email twice a day, then close it. Or hell, check it three times, or six times daily. As long as you do it at some sort of regular interval and mostly don’t have it open to distract you.
– Get things done with your newfound free time.
According to Mr. Ferris, these are all just stepping stones to working remotely (which is something I happen to do and I have to say is pretty awesome) and then ultimately creating some sort of profitable company that pays you thousands per week while you get massages in Southeast Asia and go kiteboarding. I have yet to figure that part out, but the first bit about email has already made my days much more pleasant. I hope it will for you too.
For Inbox Heroes, Betabeat is curious about your war stories, productivity tips and moments of extraordinary email. Send us an email to tips et betabeat daught com with “war on email” in the subject line and a paragraph or two (or more!) about how you deal with your influx of electronic letters.