The mathematics of Email

I was never good at mathematics.

Wait, I mean, I love it, and it is a mutual sentiment, but I never resolved myself to do some calculation to improve my condition, especially from an economic point of view. However, there is a small division I forced myself to perform.

I began by estimating how many emails fell into my inbox during the first week of December, a relatively peaceful period at my workplace. It was not an easy task since, even if I tend to file everything, there are many emails I do delete almost immediately: for example, automated notification from systems or programs and reminders from the ticketing system that my company uses. Result: more or less 300 emails, of which less than 20 on Saturday and Sunday. That means 40 emails per working day. That means five emails every hour. That means one email every twelve minutes. And, you guess it, I’m not the guy who gets more email in my company.

Geez, how I am supposed to stay focused if I have to deal with emails so often?

Experiments have proven that it takes about 25 minutes to get into a state of deep concentration after an interruption. Bad news, in the age of knowledge workers: we get a second email while we are halfway through the process of regaining control after the first one!

Now, if you get to this point without noticing anything strange, I have both bad and good news for you.

The bad news is that probably you are used to getting an explicit notification for every email, either on the phone, PC or both, and you think this is perfectly reasonable. Another bad news is that no, it is not reasonable at all! I spoke with people who genuinely believe that leaving the occasional “critical” email unattended for an hour is much worse than being interrupted all the time.

The good news is that there are at least two simple ways to improve the situation, little “tricks” that work like magic, but only if you are firmly convinced that you should avoid unproductive interruptions should at all costs. Beware: I said “simple”, not “easy”: they require to change some habits, and that’s never easy.

First: eradicate interruptions. Remove all notifications from your devices. Yes, I mean EVERY notification, from ANY device. That means both active ones (like blips, popups, vibrations) and passive ones (especially the numbered badge on the mail app, it’s good for nothing but creating worries). To be honest, when I did that I was afraid of the outcome and resolved to revert to the initial state after one week if I noticed any unwanted consequence. I suggest you adopt the same “emotional parachute”, although I bet you will not turn back. Bonus tip: if you use Outlook or another client, set it up to open on the Calendar or the Contacts views, not on the Email view.

Second: be efficient! Process your emails in batches, not one at a time, about three times a day. I suggest doing a sweep two or three hours after your working day has started, another one briefly after lunch and the last one no later than one hour before going home. The rationale behind this choice is to allow you to start the day with some productive task, maybe something you were elaborating while commuting to work, without interrupting the flow of thoughts, and leaving some time to process last minute urgent matters before going home relieved from guilty feelings.

I hope you liked these suggestions; there are more on the way in other posts when we will be dealing with the reduction of email, automation and other tactics.

Until next time, open your inbox only when you want.