Mutually Assured Distraction

In the past few years, I've read a number of books, articles, etc on productivity.  Everything from Project Management tomes to Getting Things Done to everything in between.  One of the most powerful things for me has been Inbox Zero.

The concept behind Inbox Zero is simple… the goal is to keep your inbox – things that need your immediate attention – down to a minimum.  There are a variety of ways to do this.  Some use folders like "Later" and "Todo" to keep things clear while others file the emails and just pull out the regular tasks.  In addition, many people only check their email a few times each day in order to have blocks of uninterrupted time to focus.  No matter how you handle it, one of the principles is "if a task will take less than two minutes, it will take more time to file and follow up… so just do it now."

All of these are great and have enabled me to stay focused and usually more productive.

As more of my friends and contacts have switched over to this pattern of email handling, I've noticed a problem.

At first, I only noticed this from a few people so the problem wasn't apparent.  As more and more people are checking their email at regular times, the pattern has grown worse.  If I keep my email open throughout the day, I see a quiet, slow trickle.  It can be easily handled and I move on.

If I only check email at specific times – approximately 9am, lunchtime, 2-3pm, and 6pm – something else entirely happens…

If I check email just before those times, I end up with a five minute process with some quick responses and lots of deletes.  If I check email just after those times, I have a ridiculous flood of email waiting for me.  Much of it can quickly be deleted, but significant portions of it are semi-important responses to semi-important things I sent out earlier or even during this session.  As a result, the email processing takes a bit longer… which ensures that yet another individual will process their queue while I'm doing mine.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

The positive feedback loop is deafining… and ensures that Inbox Zero isn't reached.

The only solution I've found so far is to turn off auto-checking during my processing window and to always schedule my email to "Send Later" as I'm closing down.

How do others handle the email flood?

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