focus: how not to live in your inbox
‘It’s not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?’ ~Henry David Thoreau
Many of us do this — we have our email inbox open most of the day, and most of the time, our work is right there, in the inbox. It’s where we live, communicate, keep track of tasks, do our work, organize ourselves.
Unfortunately, it’s not the best way to live and work. You’re constantly getting interrupted by new messages, and so we’re at the mercy of the requests of others. A new email comes in, and so we must stop what we’re doing to check the new email, and possibly respond. Even if we don’t respond right away, whatever we were just doing was interrupted.
This is the opposite of focus, and nothing exemplifies the need for focus better. Sure, you’re always in touch, always up to date, always on top of things. But you have no focus, and you’re buffeted in all directions by the winds of your email (or Twitter, Facebook, IM or other communication channels). It’s also hard to prioritize when you’re living in a sea of emails — every new email become important, and that makes choosing our tasks carefully an almost impossible task.
Here are some suggestions:
1. Get your task list out of your inbox. An email inbox is a bad todo list, because it can’t be prioritized, emails can’t be renamed to reflect the tasks within them, emails have multiple tasks within them, and there are always new emails coming in. Instead, choose a simple to-do list and as you process your email inbox, pull out the actions to the to-do list. A notebook or index card works fine, as does a simple program such as Taskpaper or Things, or even a text file in Notepad or TextEdit or Notational Velocity. If you set up a keyboard shortcut for your to-do app or file, it just takes a second to copy and paste a to-do from an email.
2. Do email only at pre-appointed times. You’ll need to experiment to find the schedule that works best for you, but try to stick to it rather than constantly checking your inbox. Examples might be: check email 5 minutes at the top of each hour, or just twice a day (say, at 9 am and 3 pm), or once a day at 10 am, or twice a week. Again, these are just examples — your needs will dictate the best schedule for you, though I would suggest trying a less frequent schedule than you think you need and seeing if that works.
3. Do your work with your email closed. When it’s not a pre-appointed time to check email, have it closed. This principle, by the way, also applied to any other forms of communication, such as Twitter, Facebook, IM, forums, etc., as well as other distractions such as games. Close them all when you’re going to work. In fact, close your browser or at least all the browser tabs you don’t need for that specific task. Now work without distraction for at least a short period.
4. Choose your tasks wisely. Once you’re out of your inbox, you can prioritize. You can decide what’s important, because you’re no longer at the mercy of the requests of others. What’s the best use of your time? What tasks will have the most impact on your life and work, rather than just seeming urgent right now?
Next chapter: the value of distraction