Computers: Discipline is key when dealing with torrent of email

CorrespondentOctober 6, 2013 

Everyone has a different way of handling email, but I have a friend who has discovered the worst way of all: He lets messages accumulate in his inbox until they hit the 1,000 mark. Then he takes a day away from his other duties to do nothing but answer the backlog. As a result, people hear from him only sporadically, and pressing matters get deferred, while his own stress levels rise daily as his email count nears the magic 1,000.

We all wrestle with how to handle email overload, which taxes our productivity and our patience. We also have to mix in the invariable distractions that computers provide besides the mail. On a recent flight from Texas, I watched a man going back and forth between a presentation he was tuning up, the mail in his inbox, and constant checks of Twitter and Facebook. In a more innocent time we called this “multitasking” and praised ourselves for our ability to do it. The reality is that multitasking destroys concentration and degrades thought.

When it comes to email, I still have my three-sentence rule, which says that when there’s lots of mail and time is short, no response should be longer than three sentences. It works! I admit it’s hard to force yourself into this mold when someone has just sent you a three-page tract, but if you can steel yourself to the task, you can manage it. Anyway, when the mail flow slows back down, you can always reply at greater leisure.

‘Go away, I’m busy’

As to the rest, we need to re-grow our attention spans. In his own way my friend is trying to do this, but concentrated attention has to happen daily, not just now and then. This is why, when it comes to reading on digital devices, I simply will not do it on a tablet computer. Every time I start, I think of something I need to check in my calendar or to-do list. Better to use a Kindle or one of the other E-ink devices that offer nothing but text. They’re books – enhanced books, to be sure – and they don’t try to be televisions or message terminals or photo display screens.

Research at the University of California at Irvine shows that it takes us 23 minutes to get back up to speed after an interruption (like the tweet I just answered because I gave in to my inner demon). Maybe I need to talk to a company called MyFocus, which has a Kickstarter campaign to fund a 3.5-inch button that goes on your desktop. When you set it on green, it puts off the healthy glow of openness to interruption, so your colleagues can stop by your desk to chat. When you turn it red, it means, “Go away, I’m busy.”

Don’t kid yourself

Of course, the MyFocus button actually does more than this. Hit the button to show you’re busy, and your online status also changes. Skype shows you as unavailable. Across all your linked devices and the various apps you use to drive them, you are on hold so that those messages that keep popping up in your email simply queue up until you’re green again. Your phone will take messages, but it won’t ring. Texts will arrive without notification sounds. The maker, CanFocus plans to extend the software’s reach to Facebook and Twitter.

Magic button or not, what it comes down to is that trying to do multiple tasks simultaneously is all but impossible – instead, we simply move quickly between separate tasks, a switch in attention that lengthens the time to complete each job and lowers the quality of the result. Don’t kid yourself: Even the best digital technology can’t remove the need for disciplined, focused attention, and that means on a routine basis throughout the day, not 1,000 messages at a time.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at

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