Human brain is lazy.

It doesn’t like to think or solve hard problems, which is usually the case with software development, and looks for anything it could be doing instead. Also brain is easily bored. It can focus on a dull task only for few minutes before it starts looking for distraction. Usually the first thing we do to avoid thinking is checking email. We get angry for loosing another few minutes doing nothing, get back to work but with all the distractions around it doesn’t last long before we open that email client again and again…

Good news is, it doesn’t have to be like that. There are numerous techniques that can help you stay more focused, avoid distractions and as a result boost your productivity. In this post I’d like to present two of them which I found most effective for myself and which results are noticeable almost immediately.

Turn off all notifications

Pop-up windows with email subject, small number next to icon or single sound indicating you have new message kill your focus. It doesn’t have to be an important email, as I said your brain doesn’t like to think much, and this blinking little icon is a perfect excuse to stop what you are doing and take a break. This isn’t bad, at least your brain is happy, but imagine that you get new message while you’re in the middle of some thought process.

You are distracted only for a second, but it’s all it takes to make you forget everything you have come up with so far and now you have to start from the beginning or sacrifice time trying to get back where you were and continue.

Same tasks take longer to finish when you switch your attention between different things and your productivity drops. Multitasking decreases efficiency and quality of work, which was confirmed by many research, for example one described here. This only proves that you cannot focus on a task and keep checking email every time you get new message.

Be in control of your attention, switch off all the distractions you can and just focus on the task. You will notice that not only nothing bad happened while you weren’t getting those notifications but also your productivity rose.

Stop checking email every few minutes

Turning off notifications is only the first step of career changing improvement. The second one is also very effective in increasing your productivity but much harder to implement. Constant email checking is a habit and it’s the first thing people do when they’re bored or uninterested in work. There are couple of reasons why it’s so difficult not to check your email:

  • It’s hard to break a habit, especially one that we don’t see as harmful.
  • Email is used as a distraction when we try to make ourselves think.
  • We are easily bored and look for entertainment.
  • We believe that multitasking is effective and lets us get more things done.
  • We all think, that we will get a life changing email – something about the dream job proposition we always wanted or a lottery win although we didn’t take part in any and we can’t stand the idea of missing it.

Realizing what triggers constant email checking may be not enough to break the habit. Inbox even without notifications is still drawing your attention and draining your energy with all the messages you need to reply to or take actions on.

Lars Pind in his course “Productivity for Programmers”, which was the motivation for writing this post, suggests using Inbox Zero method to take control of your emails. The idea is to leave empty inbox every time you decide to check your email client and forget what was in there. You can do that by setting up a few folders where all your incoming messages can be put in so you don’t have to think about them longer than it’s necessary.

Categories suggested by Lars are perfect for people whose private and professional accounts are the same one. For my work email I’ve decided to modify his classification to better suit my needs and here’s what I have:

  • Action – here goes emails that require taking actions longer than 2 minutes. It should be a rule that when you check email, you go through every message and if you can do it in less than 2 minutes then you should go ahead and do it, otherwise you should put it in correct folder and deal with it later, during the time scheduled for it.Checking email should be as short as possible, so it won’t turn into a continuous task again. Remember to save time during your business day exclusively for actions contained in emails from this folder.

    Folder list

  • Waiting – Folder created specifically for other people’s replies you are waiting for. You won’t have to keep remembering whose response you didn’t receive yet or which email you should escalate, it will be right there. Once you get the reply you can move this email to other folder or delete it completely.
  • Information – This is a category for emails containing information that probably will be useful in the future. Those can be emails with instructions how to book holiday in your company or list of your current responsibilities. This should be a folder where you start looking for any information you’ve received by email.
  • <Named after current project> – category dedicated for emails related to my current project that don’t contain any information or don’t require any actions or ones that are already completed. I want to keep everything in one place for future reference like a follow up question on a task I’ve done few weeks ago and forgot all about it.
  • Archive – This is a standard folder and is provided by most of the email clients. I put in here all the emails I don’t think I will need in future but don’t want to delete them permanently – just in case.

These categories emerged from my personal needs and worked for me well so far. Email clients are highly flexible and you can configure folder list however suits you best or modify the list later when you decide you need something else.

Leaving empty inbox gives you a positive feeling of accomplishment instead of constant drain on your energy. Even if you don’t reply to any messages or finish any task you were asked to do, just putting all emails in correct folders will make you feel like you’ve done something and will let you stop thinking about them. Another benefit I’ve noticed from keeping my inbox empty is that when I fail with my resolution and start checking my email, it takes only few seconds for me to realize it’s the bad habit again and I go back to work – there is nothing in there to distract me.

How to start?

When you decide to do something about your constant email checking habit and distractions from other applications, then you should start with turning off all the notifications. There are programs like Lync where unfortunately you can’t do it, so consider turning them off completely for the maximum time you can focus on one task, which is 60-90 minutes.

Once this is completed, set up folders in your email inbox that will suit your needs and do spring cleaning – sort out every single email you have in your inbox until it’s empty. It will be time consuming, but the future benefits will reward the effort.

After it’s done just be disciplined, follow the rules you set and enjoy your improved productivity!