I’m probably not the only one in the world who has an e-mail problem.
I’ve experimented with a lot of different e-mail workflows over the years, and there’s been one consistent problem that I’ve never been able to solve.
Here’s my dilemma:
Checking my e-mail is a stressful time waster.
Everyone who has read anything about productivity understands the value of batching tasks.
They also understand the energy-wasting dangers of constant task switching (beginning to write an article, then checking your e-mail, reading five messages, responding to two, then checking your to-do list, then going back to the article that you’re writing, then remembering you need to reschedule a meeting so going back to your e-mail, then responding to a few more e-mails that have come in…)
The idea of “batching” e-mail seems like a no-brainer.
“Only check e-mail at allotted times,” cry the productivity experts. Every time you go into your inbox, clear out the entire thing – either by responding, archiving, or converting the e-mail into an actionable task in your project management system.
However, I often need to access information in my e-mail while doing something else.
I need to look up something a podcast guest sent me, download an attachment, or confirm a scheduled time.
So, what happens?
I go to my inbox and immediately get stressed out at the inbound communication. I either start reading and responding to e-mail (which means I’m not doing what I was supposed to be doing).
Or, I remain disciplined and only briefly pass through my inbox on my way to the information that originally brought me on my expedition through the digital hinterlands of my inbox.
However, in either case, I now have a corner of my brain devoted to thinking about all of the unread e-mail I just witnessed – foreboding subject lines, surprising senders, or files that I’ve been waiting for to complete some of my projects.
Turns out, a lot of people have this problem, and so folks have crafted some creative browser extensions to help. One of the better ones is the “Inbox When Ready.”
And it works great.
Your inbox is blocked when you go to it.
Only problem is that all you have to do when you visit your e-mail is push a single button to view all of your messages.
When you’re exposed to powerful, variable rewards like an e-mail inbox, it can be nigh impossible to avoid the impulse to push that button and see what’s hiding.
And, once you’ve pushed it enough times, you start to develop a habit so that your mouse is moving in the direction of the “Show Inbox” button no sooner than you’ve finished typing “.com” in your mail’s URL.
While my inbox is ostensibly hidden, I still view my unread messages just about every damn time I go to my e-mail anyway.
So, here’s my solution (which has been working fantastically):
I have “Inbox When Ready” installed on two separate browsers.
I use Chrome for most standard web-based tasks. In this browser, I set an “Inbox When Ready” lockout timer to last all day.
I can still go to my e-mail to search for messages and find information that I need, but I’m blocked from clicking the “Show Inbox” button.
When I actually intend to process e-mail, I use Firefox (but leave it closed the rest of the time).
So, in order to actually check my e-mail, I have to fire up and entirely separate browser.
This is enough of a barrier and a hassle to prevent lapses in judgement or willpower resulting in getting lost in e-mail. And, my synapses are far less often occupied with admin tasks that are not exactly urgent but are time sensitive (updating client’s memberships, rescheduling appointments, etc.) that are best handled in a solid block of time a few times per day.
I’ve been really happy with this change in my workflow – and hopefully this helps someone else out as well!