In 2015, an editor friend brought my attention to the following tweet from CNBC’s then-social media producer.
There are 2 kinds of people in this world. pic.twitter.com/y8bUyrGHeo
— Eli Langer (@EliLanger) March 1, 2015
More than two years later, the image is still burned in my brain … as I suspect it is for many of the 4000-plus people who retweeted it.
Why? The reason that this tweet and others like it — plus treatises on the topic, both serious and satiric — have gone viral — is that they poke fun at a reality of life with which we’re all familiar: The compulsion to answer and archive all emails the moment we receive them. And the guilt, and maybe even lack of professional worth, we feel when we don’t.
As a writer who needs to avoid distractions when on deadline, I constantly struggle to strike the right balance between inbox-checking and deep focus on big assignments. So I was pleased to discover a take on the problem in Science of Us.
The article argues that not all emails require an immediate response, while acknowledging the difficulty in separating out the ones that do. To help make this distinction, author Melissa Dahl turned to behavioral economist Dan Ariely, who notes that when it comes to email, “we treat everything as if we’re in a hurry” and, according to research findings, he’s correct: on average, people tend to respond to an email notification within six seconds.
This is a problem, Ariely explains, because “There’s a huge difference between important and urgent.” (He cites as an example his mom, who has sent plenty of important emails, but zero urgent ones.) And when you treat every email as urgent, he argues, you divert attention away from the more consequential projects that should be the focal point of your career.
Plus, isn’t urgency what texts were invented for?
If you’re looking for a happy medium, try these LearnVest-approved tips:
•Triage. Instead of responding to each email as it comes in, skim the sender to determine if the email needs an immediate response, let the ones that don’t pile up, and then take 45 minutes at the end of your day to work through them. By then many of the issues begging your help may have been resolved, freeing up your time for bigger priorities.
• Be strategic. In order to control what comes in, exercise intention with what goes out. To cut down on the number of emails in a chain with a colleague or boss, try consolidating your one-off thoughts and questions into a single email and ask them to do the same for you. And if you’re not confident you know how to send an effective email in the first place, it may be time for a 101.
• Know your job expectations. While it’s tempting to blow off those pop-ups on your screen every time a new email comes through, acceptable email response time does vary between organizations. If you work in a newsroom, for example, immediate replies are likely paramount. Timeliness may also be of the essence if your role is client-facing.
Email’s a distraction that’s here to stay but with a little forethought, it doesn’t have to be so overwhelming. So here’s to overcoming the tyranny of the inbox and achieving serene focus!