Turn off That E-mail!

I am currently reading Timothy Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek. I’m going to reserve my opinion on the value of the book overall, but there have been little lessons that are immediately applicable to my life. He has several tips on maximizing your effectiveness and productivity by minimizing distractions and setting yourself up with really tight deadlines.

On the former issue, I’ve decided to control the distractions e-mails create in my life.

Many people have e-mail software open constantly when they work. Or even when they don’t work. E-mails are set up to be forwarded to your phone, for example. I don’t know if it beeps or buzzes when you receive e-mails (I don’t do internet on my phone — in fact, we’re looking at ditching cell phones, too, eventually).

First of all, don’t check e-mail when you first fire up your computer in the morning.

Instead, work on truly important tasks. The best kinds are those tasks that are important but don’t have pressing, externally-imposed (meaning, you’re accountable to someone else) deadlines. What Stephen Covey defines as the “second-quadrant” work. Professional or personal development is a good example of things to work on first thing in the morning.

Second, define a schedule for when you check your e-mail. This depends on the nature of your job — some jobs, your central task is to respond to e-mails quickly, so you’ll have to temper it accordingly. Try to contain it to as few times as possible. Right now I’m trying out twice a day: once at noon and once at 4pm. I’ve turned off automatic checking and receiving of e-mails in my Thunderbird so if I do have to work on sending e-mails, I can open it up without getting distracted by incoming e-mails.

Once I set up this structure, I immediately noticed a sense of relief. I can concentrate on my tasks at hand better, and my productivity has gone up.

We like receiving e-mails. It’s like a kid in the candy store — you get excited unwrapping the candy and popping it in your mouth. Sometimes you don’t know what it tastes like, and that’s part of the excitement.

Except this artificially induced sugar high is not sustainable. After a little while, you come down from your high and your mood goes lower than before having the candy. You’ll start looking for another candy to relieve the low.

The same thing happens with e-mails and internet. You crave that high and stimulation of receiving e-mails and finding engaging articles to read. But once you get started down the path, you can’t settle down and be comfortable in a less stimulating environment. For example, if you start surfing YouTube, all the sudden listening to music or reading a book doesn’t seem exciting enough. Video is more engaging — and your system gets adjusted to that, and the less attention-grabbing stimuli of reading or listening just doesn’t satisfy you.

The trick is to keep such drastic stimulations at bay. Your system is perfectly capable of finding satisfaction in less invasive environment. In fact, that state is more sustainable and more wholistic.
You can concentrate better, remember more details, and feel peaceful easily.

E-mails are a great tool, don’t get me wrong. But stopping to depend on the high of checking e-mails and letting incoming e-mails interrupt your thoughts ultimately yield better results — more productive and peaceful self.

Once you try it, you won’t go back. Control your e-mails, instead of letting them have their ways with you.


  1. Good past Ari. Email’s a funny old thing. In many respects the way it has developed is identical to regular old ‘snail mail’, when you think about it.

    When I was a kid, getting a letter in the post was always exciting. Why? Because it was always something good. Either a card (which might contain that lovely stuff called money) or some comforting words from friends or family.

    As you get older, most of the letters you start to receive are bills. Letters become less exciting, although still important – you need to open them.

    As you get older still, most of the letters you start to receive are junk mail. Letters are mostly irritating. You don’t even open probably half of them.

    Email went the same way. When I first got on the Internet back in about 1993, getting an email was exciting because it was always from somebody you knew and/or liked.

    After a year or two, most of the emails you started to get were still from friends and colleagues, but the odd bit of uninvited or junk email had crept in. You still liked getting email.

    By the late 90s, most of the email you received was junk mail – probably 70 per cent. The rest was to do with work, with the odd one from your friends. Email was less interesting.

    By about the year 2005, nearly all the email you receive is junk. Modern spam filters (especially on the excellent Gmail) take care of most of it but when you realise that probably 90 per cent of what you receive is spam it can be quite disheartening.

    Email is, for me at least, no longer much fun.

    My prediction? Give it five years and the next interface to suffer from this problem will be mobile phones and SMS messages. It’s already happening for an unlucky few, but I can see it being commonplace within that timeframe for most of your text messages to be spam and/or ‘Google’-a-like catered advertisements.

    I think Twitter risks going the same way too, alas, as I feel that this kind of thing – from exciting and fun, to routine, to annoying – is a natural progression for all communication mediums. At least, that’s how it’s been in the past, and that’s typically an accurate predictor of the future! 🙂

  2. Oh, btw – while not all of it will be relevant to you (at least, that’s how it was for me, and I think a lot of people), Ferris’ book is excellent.

    I haven’t read The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People – yet! Is this something you’d recommend Ari?

  3. Hi Sheamus!

    I agree with your analysis. The more common place a certain communication method becomes, it gets abused and start to lose relevance.

    I do recommend the Seven Habits book. I haven’t read as many books as I’d like to, but from what I can tell it remains the pillar of modern personal development theories. Its core concepts have become a foundation of all my thinking and analyzing of human nature. It really explains the very bottom of what defines personal effectiveness and productivity.


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