As web workers, we know that the very medium that makes us so productive — the web — also interrupts our work and slows us down at the same time.
The solution, of course, is to batch process … but it isn’t always as easy as it sounds.
In truth, emails, IMs, Twitters, RSS feeds and other forms of communication are necessary to our work, but they are interruptions and they are addictive. In order to boost our productivity, we need to find ways to break those addictions and keep the interruptions to a minimum.
What follows is a guide to minimizing those interruptions to once a day … and in the process, freeing up your entire day to do your actual work. This is just a suggested course of action, of course, and should be adapted to fit your individual situation.
It should also be noted that there will be many people who read this and say, “But I need to check my email throughout the day!” In truth, very few of us need to answer an email right away. We don’t need to be notified the second an email comes in. And even if we get hundreds of emails a day, none of those are so urgent they can’t wait a day for a response.
So let’s get into it: a guide to doing email and RSS just once a day.
Rule 1: Turn off all instant communication. That means turn off IM, Twitter, and email notifications. You don’t need to communicate with people right away. If you do, you can contact them … but the key is to minimize interruptions. Put yourself in the driver seat when it comes to your time — not anyone who deigns to send you an email or instant message. Otherwise, your time isn’t yours, and it’ll take forever to get anything actually done.
Rule 2: Notify your contacts of your new once-a-day policy. Some people advocate an autoresponder to let people know that you have a new once-a-day email policy, and to let them know to contact you via phone if it’s urgent and requires a response sooner than a day. But to be honest, I can’t stand autoresponders, unless the person is actually on vacation. It’s annoying to get an autoresponse every time you email someone. Perhaps that’s the point, but I prefer not to annoy my friends and colleagues.
Instead, send out a mass email (it’s annoying, but it only happens once) to everyone with whom you correspond regularly. Let them know that due to an overwhelming amount of email you process daily, and the amount of projects you need to complete, you have decided to answer email just once a day. If they need to contact you sooner, and they have your number, they should call.
From then on, you don’t need to notify new people of your once-a-day policy, because they don’t have an expectation that you’ll respond right away. It’s actually presumptuous to email someone you don’t know or just met and expect them to answer within an hour or two. Trust me: no one will mind if you take a day to respond.
Rule 3: Minimize email clutter. Take a few steps to ensure that the emails you process each day are actually ones you need to respond to or read:
- Unsubscribe from mailing lists and newsletters and advertising. It’s rare that we actually read through all of this stuff, and even if we do, it’s rare that it’s of great value. Take a minute to unsubscribe. Get a regular email from an online retailer or a company whose product you use? Unsubscribe. It’s all just clutter you don’t need.
- Start a killfile. You know who they are — well intentioned friends who just send you joke emails, chain letters and similar junk. Killfile them. In Gmail, just create a “delete” filter and add the email address of anyone who sends you useless emails (separate them with an OR or a “|” character). You don’t have time for that.
- Filter other stuff. If you get notifications or other types of emails you don’t need to read right away, filter them into a folder to read when you have the time. But you want this stuff out of your inbox. For example, comments and pingbacks on my blog are filtered into a separate folder, as are notifications from Google Calendar and other services. This will leave your inbox with just the stuff you need to read or respond to.
Rule 4: Set a time to process email, RSS feeds. Choose one set time during the day: I suggest either 10 a.m. or 4 p.m. Don’t do it first thing in the morning, before you’ve done your actual work. 10 a.m. is good if you like to make sure that you’re doing the work you need to do today, based on incoming emails. 4 p.m. is good if you are more in control of your work, and just want to clear out your inbox before you finish work for the day. Set 30 minutes to an hour for processing, depending on your needs.
Now that you set that time, don’t do it at any other times during the day. I know, it’s hard. But try it for one day. You’re likely to find you didn’t really miss a thing by not checking email all day. Life went on fine, and the world continued to revolve. Break your addiction!
Rule 5: Dispose of each email, immediately, and process inbox to empty. Don’t leave any email languishing in your inbox. It’s clutter, it’s distracting, and it’s inefficient. Open each email, one at a time, and decide what to do with it. And do it immediately, and then move on to the next email. Here are the choices:
- Reply immediately. Shoot off a real quick response. Then archive the email and get it out of the inbox.
- Delete. You don’t need to reply to this email, and you’ll never need it again. Trash it quickly to get it out of the inbox.
- Archive. You might need this later, but you don’t need to take action or reply. Just hit “archive” and you can search for it later. Forget about folders or tags — it takes too much time.
- Action. If the email requires action, or a longer response, note it on your to-do list, tag it or give it a “Star” or something, and archive it. You can get to it later when you’re ready to take action.
Note that none of these actions leave the email in the inbox.
Keyboard shortcuts: Also note that you’ll do these actions more quickly if you use keyboard shortcuts. In Gmail, for example, the shortcuts are “r” for reply, “c” for compose, “y” for archive, “o” for open, “#” for delete, and “j” and “k” for next and previous.
Rule 7: Minimize RSS feeds. Now we move on to RSS feeds. If you’re like me, you might have dozens or even hundreds. It was only recently that I realized that reading my feeds had gotten out of control, and that I didn’t really need to be “in the know” by reading all of them. So I began weeding them out, a dozen or so at a time, until I got down to just the 16 most essential feeds (your mileage will vary). Now I only have about 20-30 posts a day to get through.
I suggest weeding through your feeds. Get rid of the ones that don’t give you value, that don’t update very often, that are full of too many junk posts. Just keep the ones you truly love reading every day, the ones that deliver amazing posts, every single day. By eliminating all but the most essential feeds, you’ve taken control of your time again and greatly reduced the amount of time you spend reading the feeds.
Rule 8: Process your feeds quickly. Now that you have your feeds down to a minimum, process them once a day — at the same time as email would probably be best. And just like email, it’s best to process quickly, and process to empty. My suggested method is to crank through them quickly, reading headlines and scanning further if needed, and then opening posts you want to read more carefully in a new tab.
I also suggest Google Reader, only because for me it’s the easiest to crank through extremely quickly, but if you have a better reader that can do the same thing, go with it. In Google Reader, use the shortcut keys: “j” and “k” to go to the next and previous posts, spacebar to page down, and “v” to open an item in a new tab.
Once I’ve scanned through my feeds quickly, I then go and read the ones I opened in tabs more carefully. If I don’t have time to read it fully now, I’ll bookmark it for reading later.
What are your thoughts on this issue? Do you have a better method? Share it with us in the comments.