If an inbox full of unread emails stresses you out, you may have adopted a bad habit that feels efficient but is only making your life worse.
Say, for example, you meet someone interesting at a conference and he emails you saying he’d love to follow up over coffee.
As soon as you notice this email, you decide to impulsively answer it within a few seconds, for the satisfaction of one less unread message in your inbox: You say that the idea sounds great and that you’d be free Monday afternoon. He says that works for him, and asks if 3 p.m. works. Six messages later, spread over an entire day, and you’ve finally decided where and when to meet.
This mindless back-and-forth that requires both parties to repeatedly check their inboxes to hash out a plan is an example of an all too common distraction that prevents us from plugging in and focusing the full extent of our concentration and intelligence into rewarding “deep work.”
The way to stop treating your inbox like a text-messaging service is simple, Newport says, if you take a process-centric approach.
Using the coffee example from above, Newport suggests an email like the following, a combination of his writing and ours:
I’d love to grab coffee. Let’s meet at the Starbucks on 21st Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue. I’ve listed days and times next week when I’m free. I’ll have 30 minutes to chat. If any of those times work for you, let me know. I’ll consider your reply confirmation for the meeting. If none of them work, give me a call at the number below and we’ll work something out. Looking forward to it.
M 1/25: 3:00 p.m., 4:15 p.m.
W 1/27: 2:00 p.m., 3:30 p.m.
Th 1/28: 3:00 p.m.
This type of reply will take you a few minutes rather than a few seconds, but will save both you and the recipient from the annoying time and attention drain of the other approach.
Newport notes that if you’re afraid the process will make you seem like a robot, then open and close your email with something more colloquial. Your recipient, however, will likely appreciate your effort to wrapping up planning in a single message. You’ll have plenty of time to talk when you eventually meet.
“By putting more thought up front into what’s really being proposed by the email messages that flit in and out of your inbox, you’ll greatly reduce the negative impact of this technology on your ability to do work that actually matters,” Newport writes.
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