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Avoiding Distractions with Email

This article continues the theme of my previous article on avoiding being disturbed at work by looking at another source of distractions – email. Email is an important form of communication for me at work, but I as previously discussed I cannot afford to let the use of email distract me during my dedicated blocks of solo thinking time – typically architectural design or coding activities. In this article I discuss various approaches I tried and use to minimize the distractions that email can cause. I use Microsoft Outlook at work both for email and for its calendar event scheduling functionality.

The very first thing to do to minimize email distractions is to disable in Outlook all the indicators (like the bell, pop-up that fades, and system tray icon) that announce that a new email has arrived. I have always found these annoying and disabled them years ago. (Why are they enabled by default?) Every productivity expert I have read who mentions email also makes the same recommendation, so if you are reading this now and have those indicators set stop and disable them.

Without these indicators I still found myself becoming distracted by email. A typical scenario would see me working in one of my dedicated blocks of time focused on a task when I needed to either send an email or refer to an old one. I would open Outlook, see all the new emails in my inbox, and get distracted with reading and/or responding to them, especially if they were marked high priority. (This is the classic mistake of doing the urgent instead of the important.) So I tried a number of approaches.

First I tried to figure out how to send an email without opening Outlook. I wanted a shortcut in my Windows quick launch bar to do this, but what would have been trivial in an Unix environment turned out to be surprisingly difficult. In fact, I couldn't figure out how to do it using a command-line script, and I wasn't about to spend the time required to write a .Net program to do this. (If you know how to do this or know of such a program please let me know.) The best workaround I found was to invoke the Windows Run command (normally found in the start menu, it can be invoked by the shortcut of the Windows key + R), and type in the command "mailto:". The extra keystrokes were enough to prevent me from adopting this as a regular practice, and this didn't help anyways when I needed to reference an existing email.

Next I tried to figure out how to have Outlook check for incoming emails less often. I found a number of settings that seemed relevant, but they had no effect. New emails were still detected in less than five minutes. I was not sure if I missed the correct setting in Outlook, or if it was taking its email-checking configuration from the Outlook server. (If you know, please pass along the information via a comment.) In either case, I was pretty unhappy with Outlook. I considered simply shutting it down, but I needed it running in order to provide reminders for all the meetings I had scheduled throughout the day – including reminders for my personal design times.

I finally found a workaround through a coworker – switch Outlook to offline mode, and it will no longer check for emails. When offline Outlook does not send emails either, which was mildly annoying but a limitation I could live with. It took me less than a week, however, before I discovered another major limitation: while in offline mode changes to my schedule would not be communicated back to the Outlook server (and become visible to others) after I went back online. I discovered this via a not-so-amusing exchange with a coworker who was trying to book a meeting with me for an afternoon he saw as free that I had booked something while offline. The workaround to this annoying problem was to discipline myself to treat my calendar as read-only while Outlook was offline. Despite all the issues, offline mode worked quite well for me.

Recently, I have become more disciplined about remaining focused during my solo blocks of time and have found myself using offline mode less often. This seems to work best for me when I am crystal clear on my priorities (usually due to an impending deadline), so when I do see an email that would normally distract me I immediately think "not a priority" and file it for actioning later. There is usually a small amount of mental effort / distraction involved in scanning the email and making this decision, so it would be better to not have the emails come in until I want.

What approaches do you use to avoid getting distracted by email? I would love to hear your ideas, so leave a comment below.

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