Skip to content

Inbox Interruptions

2010 April 16
tags: Inbox, Interruptions
by Andrew   

I wrote last week about getting to, and maintaining, a one-page inbox. If you haven’t read that piece yet, you can find it here. I recommend reading it before (or right after) this one unless your inbox is regularly one page or less.

Inbox interruptions are like all other interruptions in at least one respect: they redirect your attention away from whatever you were doing before the interruption. If it was being productive, uh-oh. So, how to manage them…

The thing that makes inbox interruptions so thorny is their frequency and the guilty feeling so many of us have if we ignore the new mail sound.

Reasonably speaking, some email can’t be ignored: your boss’ email that fairly demands attention by its nature, urgent requests from your staff, or urgent requests from clients or other high-priority stakeholders in whatever you do.

However, most new email usually can be ignored for at least an hour or two. After all, that is in effect what happens when you’re in a meeting. Consider the impact of the “normal” inbox checking: you arrive in the morning and check your mail (or start reading on your mobile device during your commute), and respond to the messages that require it immediately. Then, regardless of what else you’re working on, you look at your inbox every. single. time. the new message alert sounds. If your inbox has a live connection to your server, that’s potentially hundreds of interruptions a day. Come on…be realistic. You look to see who the message is from every time the alert sounds.


Managing the interruptions

Some solutions to regain your productivity and fend off the inbox interruption gnome:

  1. Set your inbox to poll the server every 20 minutes. You just reduced your inbox interruption potential from constantly to three times per hour. You aren’t going to miss anything urgent (wait for it…).
  2. Turn off the new email sound…and the popup unless it auto-dismisses. I like the popup bubble because it allows me to quickly delete a message I know I don’t need. Mine is semi-transparent and disappears after five seconds. If it distracts you, turn it off. Schedule time to review messages.
  3. Create message rules that announce when messages meeting certain criteria arrive. For example, I have custom announced-name alerts for several very important people. The key is to keep these to a minimum or they don’t work.
  4. Create a subject flagword and create a specific alert for it. Give the flagword to a select list of highly trusted people who have the discretion to interrupt you only when a matter requires immediate attention. In my case, this flagword triggers my mobile device to activate a specific alert. Since I’m rarely without it, I don’t have to deal with another popup on my desktop and I don’t need another procedure in case I’m out of the office.
  5. Create folders (other than those in the One-Page Inbox piece) for newsletters, work-related discussion lists, and automated notifications. Create rules to auto-file these, and set the folders to show the total number of messages if you can. These don’t deserve the attention that PERSFOR (personally for you) email does, unless you’re responsible for monitoring critical infrastructure equipment that emails health reports about itself.
  6. Delete chain mail, photo tours, advertisements, and such. Politely tell repeat senders of such items that you prefer not to get them. If you have the time or the inclination, create a template that you can use to quickly and politely respond to repeat senders. If you really want help with this one, leave me a comment to let me know. If there are people whose photos or whatever you just have to have, give them your home email, or forward them home yourself and see how many you ultimately delete without reading. That should help you decide if you really want them that much.
  7. Tell people to call you, drop by, or schedule a meeting if they really need a response by a certain time when you know you will be overwhelmed with the volume of email or other tasks for a while.


2 Responses Post a comment
  1. April 18, 2011

    Hey Andrew!

    Thanks for these tips! The Outlook new mail noise can get ingrained in my head every now and then. Being able to filter what does and does not need immediate attention is important.

    All the best!

    • Andrew permalink
      April 18, 2011

      Hey, Ben!

      I'm glad you found the tips helpful. I'll admit it took me a while (and some prodding from my coach) before I turned off the pop-up bubble finally, but I'm glad I did. I've easily regained over half an hour during the day because I'm not constantly stopping to see what just chimed at me. One additional tip I'll offer is that I've customized half-a-dozen or so sounds that specifically announce who a sender is. I've created rules so I get a notice that a specific person (like our division executives or director) sent me an email, even though I have the rest of the alerts turned off. I use to create the samples because they have such a user-friendly tool and a wide range of voices to choose from.

Leave a Reply

Note: You may use basic HTML in your comments. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS