Overcoming Email’s False Sense of Progress

Dan Ariely has a new book out where he discusses the psychology behind why we overinvest in email, to the detriment of more important priorities:

“First, people have a really bad habit of coming in and checking
e-mail first thing in the morning. And for many people, the morning is
the most productive time. E-mail is very, very tempting, so they
basically sacrifice their productive time for e-mail.

The second issue is that in doing things, we like to feel that we’re
making progress. So if you get to erase ten e-mails from your inbox, you
feel like you have achieved something. But if you think carefully about
it, it’s not clear that you’re going to get something out of it.

Every time you’re doing something, you’re not doing something else. But
you don’t really see what it is that you’re giving up. Especially when
it comes to, let’s say, e-mail versus doing something that takes fifty
hours. It is very easy for you to see the e-mail. It is not that easy
for you to see the thing that takes fifty hours.”

I’ve written before about my use of the Pomodoro technique:

By dividing up the day into 20-minute chunks and being explicit about when to work or rest, the Pomodoro technique helps me keep on task.  I’ve also applied it to email, along with one of my other favorite productivity techniques, compartmentalization.

Essentially, I decide in advance whether a particular 20-minute chunk is going to be devoted to email or not.  I try to alternate, so that I’m always making progress towards crucial goals, even when my inbox is overflowing.  If I find myself drifting into email when I’m supposed to be working on a broader initiative, I reel myself back in.  If I drift into a more important priority, I usually let things play out.

This allows me to make steady daily progress, another favorite technique:

The downside is that I’m not making email a priority–a fact that is reflected by the 5,000+ messages in my inbox.  But in a sense, that’s the proof that the technique is working.  I’m able to maintain focus on what counts without letting email distract me.

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