E-mail. A theme we will visit often here at the Personal Productivity Blog. You can (and I often do) make a pretty compelling argument that there is no bigger single enemy of productivity in the workplace than e-mail. It seems sacrilegious and many people will disagree vehemently, but I stand by it. E-mail interrupts, de-personalizes, causes misunderstandings and demands attention. I don´t suggest that we should eliminate e-mail entirely from our lives. I´m as much of an addict as anyone. It´s just important to keep e-mail in perspective.
One of my favorite discussions of e-mail use is this one by the prolific author Neal Stephenson. It´s a form letter for his fans. In order to be a good novelist, which is what his fans ultimately want, he needs uninterrupted blocks of time to write. Replying to e-mails interrupts those blocks of time and hampers his creative process. As he says, therefore, "I am faced with a stark choice between being a bad correspondent and being a good novelist. I am trying to be a good novelist, and hoping that people will forgive me for being a bad correspondent."
Stephenson realizes that e-mail affects his productivity, so he has clearly ranked his priorities. Further, and more important, he has realized that his world will still keep spinning if he doesn´t correspond well. People will still read his books if he doesn´t get to his e-mail, but they won´t e-mail him if he doesn´t write his books. A simple balance for him, and a decision that makes him much more productive.
I guarantee that your world will keep spinning if you forego your e-mail in favor of more important tasks once in a while, too. Need proof? Be brave and try this experiment. Don´t open your e-mail for an entire day. Seem tough? It gets worse. At the end of the day, open your inbox and delete every message. Don´t even look at them. Just send them straight into the trash.
What will happen? Surprisingly little. Perhaps depressingly little. Anything that needs attention will re-appear and everything else will just disappear. The world will go on just fine. Of course, I´m not suggesting that you do this all the time. It´s just a good experiment to try out. E-mail allows us to inflate our own self-importance. This little test may help you see that putting e-mail on the backburner once in a while in favor of more important tasks won´t kill you. In fact, it will make you more productive.
I´m not suggesting that you become a Luddite, swear off all technology and move into the forest to live off leaves and shoots. I´m just saying that, like Stephenson, we all need to put e-mail in its proper place. Unless you are a rare individual, e-mail exerts more control over your life than it should. Over the coming weeks and months we´ll work together to find ways to get that control to a better, and more productive, level.