Curing the Inbox Twitch

By | September 24, 2008

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Sorry, say that again?

Research indicates we’re bad at recovering from interruption: In a study last year, according to The Sydney Morning Herald, Dr Thomas Jackson of Loughborough University, England, found that it takes an average of 64 seconds to recover your train of thought after interruption by email. As the Herald points out: People who check their email every five minutes waste 8.5 hours a week figuring out what they were doing moments before.

Assuming you’re like me and don’t have any holidays, that’s more than 18 days a year of wondering what the hell you were working on before you opened that chain email about Sarah Palin’s collection of moose-fur slippers.

So how do you avoid this?

Well, I’ve talked before about keeping an empty inbox. That’s worth sticking to: It’s a lot easier to scan an inbox that’s nearly empty than one that’s full. (These are the kinds of profundities you get when you sign up for the Loose Wire column.)

But it’s even better not to scan the inbox at all. But I know this is not easy: I’m a compulsive email checker, and I really wish I wasn’t. What we’re really admitting, when we check our email—whether on a computer or a mobile phone—is that we’re not really in control of our lives.

We’re basically waiting for something: news, instruction, affirmation, confirmation, degradation, a sense of belonging, a distraction. Even a Dear John letter. Anything, basically, but what we have right in front of us. Anything than finishing off what we’re actually doing.

You’ll know this because on those rare occasions when you’re on a trip to the boondocks, and you have no phone signal, you’ll notice that the clouds haven’t darkened, the heavens haven’t opened, the sky, basically, hasn’t fallen. You’re still alive. The office still exists. You haven’t been fired. (And if you have, sorry about that. Maybe you should have checked your email more often. Just kidding.)

The other time you’ll notice that email absence isn’t necessarily fatal is when you’re working on something and you achieve that great moment of flow—when nothing can distract you and you’re on fire. Not literally of course; you’re just able to push aside all distractions and get on with what you’re doing.

This is why computers suck. They’re designed to be intrusive—to destroy flow. Your Microsoft Outlook has, as standard, a little icon that sits in the corner of your screen to inform you when an email arrives. This is basically the software’s way of telling you: “This computer is designed to help you work, but also to set your priorities for you. We know best. We know that a piece of spam we failed to identify as spam is more important to you than keeping your train of thought from coming off the rails.”

Well, this isn’t right. It doesn’t sound right, and it’s a sure sign that you haven’t figured out that YOU CAN DISABLE EMAIL NOTIFICATION. (See the little brown Outlook icon in the bottom right hand corner of your screen? Right click that and make sure that Show New Mail Desktop Alert doesn’t have a tick next to it.)

Now you won’t, or shouldn’t, get any more notifications of incoming emails. (If you’re not using Outlook you may have to hunt around to find out how to disable pop-up notifications. Thunderbird, for example, has its settings inside the Options/General tab.)

Of course, you still need to check your email. But unless you’re in a high-pressure job that demands to-the-second response times like air traffic control or running relatively large countries (in which case email overload is probably not going to be top of your list of irritating disruptions) you should be able to read your email when you feel like it, not when someone else does.

I, for example, recommend looking at your inbox not more frequently than every 15 minutes. It gives your hands a rest from the computer, and it yet it gives you enough time to pour your concentration into what you’re doing for a good stretch. If you can manage 30 minutes, go for it.

If your boss doesn’t feel you’re responding quickly enough, you may have to either tweak her or tweak the intervals between email checks.

The other way to limit email distraction is not to just respond to stuff. Cut down the emails you send and you’re less likely to get lots back. If you use a Blackberry, for example, don’t reply on the device unless you really have to; wait until you get back to the office.

Divide those incoming emails into those you need to, or can, respond to immediately without taking up lots of time. Those you can reasonably delegate, those you don’t need to respond to at all, and those you can respond to later. Only the last group needs to be dealt with later in the day; set aside time for that and do them all in one go. Then dash out the door.

Don’t copy everyone on your emails, and try to discourage your colleagues from doing so. It’s lazy practice and wastes everyone’s time. Send an email only to those people who really need to read it, and don’t think you’re being smart by forwarding stuff to other people as way of cutting down your workload. Never happens. It’ll always come back to you.

Emails, of course, aren’t the only distraction. Nowadays we tend to allow our personal life into our work life: web mail (Yahoo, Gmail, MSN) and even instant messaging services such as Skype. Facebook and social networks are one vast attention distorter. We managed quite well without them a couple of years ago; now we physically wilt if we can’t see what item Paul has stuck on his head today.

Now there’s nothing wrong with these things, well not too much, but they break up your concentration as badly as email. So don’t let them. Don’t have Facebook or web-mail accounts open in your browser when you work—not least because Facebook now includes a chat feature which lets your friends see you’re online and logged in and will almost certainly ping you for a chat.

Set aside time to do your personal email and Facebooking but make sure that it’s only a few times a day; anything more frequent and you’ll be as distracted as those highly caffeinated laptop users in Starbucks who kid themselves they’re working.

(The other modern distraction are status update services like Twitter. These are real productivity killers. They’re great for staying in touch with people, and feeling connected, but once again, set boundaries for yourself.)

If you have any say about how your organisation is run, consider proposing some alternatives to email. Wikis are a great way to move non-urgent information around. Instead of sending everyone an email about how the entertainment committee are considering a suggestion that toilets be fitted out with ambient lighting to improve bowel movement, put it on a department wiki, so employees can check it themselves from time to time. Not everyone needs to know right here right now.

In short, the smaller your inbox and the smaller your colleagues’ inboxes, the less distracted you’ll be. And hey, I didn’t check my inbox once writing this. God knows what has happened in the meantime. Better check.

Jeremy Wagstaff is a commentator on technology and appears regularly on the BBC World Service. He can be found online at or via email at