Ever since I started my first job a few years ago, my browser window has looked the same.
I’d keep open a tab for my personal email, a tab for my work email, and tabs for everything I was working on. This system let me casually glance at the upper left corner of my screen whenever a (1) happened to pop up, at which point I’d drop what I was doing to field the new message.
My system (or lack thereof, I learned) is one most people employ — to their detriment.
If we go by the research that says people receive an average of 50 emails over a normal eight-hour work day, then that’s approximately one new email every 10 minutes. Most people check their email within six seconds of getting a notification. The problem, psychologists have found, is that it takes humans about 25 minutes to regain focus after an interruption.
A system of rolling responses, in other words, forces you to spend most of your time outside the concentration sweet spot. You’re always trying to regain the momentum you’ve lost.
I kept up this system until about a month ago, when I read a book called “Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions.” I’ve been taking the book’s advice ever since, and now everything about how I check email is different — and better.
The first change I made is that I now only check my email once per hour. This eliminates the constant urge to see what that pesky (1) is about. Email is out of sight, so it’s out of mind.
The second change is that when I do check my email, I answer messages in batches, paying little attention to which emails are most urgent. If I spend time trying to prioritise this pile of email (because it will be a pile after an hour of neglect) I waste valuable minutes I could be using to actually responding.
In the month since I first adopted the strategy, my productivity has climbed dramatically. I can sort out my thoughts better and deliver cleaner drafts to my editor. I imagine the same would hold true for an accountant combing through financials or an attorney reading legal briefs.
In just about all cases, devoting a block of time to one topic lets you think about it clearly and spot your own mistakes earlier.
There are still times when I keep my email tab open for a few extra minutes while I’m working. Usually it’s when I’m waiting for a source to get back about a time-sensitive story.
And there are, of course, people whose jobs don’t allow them to wait an entire hour. But in fields where people aren’t under a constant time crunch and they need to stay focused for sustained periods, the combination of periodic check-ins and batch replies is by far the smarter option.
“Humans and computers alike pay a penalty for starting a new task or interrupting the task that they’re on,” Christian, one of the co-authors, told me back in July.
You might not recognise the penalty at first, but once you try the alternative you’ll wonder how you ever got anything done before.