This is a guest post from Gordon Cieplak, Creative Director at 8tracks and the principal of Handsome Code. You can find him @gordoncc on Twitter and grdn.cc on Tumblr, his preferred methods of distraction.
Gordon Cieplak, web designer
Email is awesome. It is the foundation for all electronic communication. (You know, after things like math, transistors, TCP/IP, etc.) Basically, every ‘tech start-up’ in New York is an elaborate way to send an email that says ‘Hey, look at me!’ or ‘Hey, look at this stuff I like!’
That said, like anything awesome that man has invented (and I mean man, not woman, you raucous ‘change the ratio’ maniacs), it ends up becoming more of a chore than the incredible and liberating tool that it is. But we (both men and women) only have ourselves to blame, the technology is not the culprit.
So, if you get lots of email and it’s a pain in the ass to deal with it and you feel like a ‘hero’ when you can manage, you are not an ‘inbox hero.’ You’re just a technologically confused asshole, like most of us. This column really should be called ‘inbox assholes,’ though that sounds like the name of a niche porn site. But I digress.
If you get lots of email that must be answered, that is an awesome problem, because that means you have responsibility. That means somebody values your words and judgment, and that you probably get paid for those pieces of information. Being an information worker is great, because it’s pretty easy, pays well, and mostly doesn’t result in life-threatening illness, though I did have quite an existential malaise at my first full-time job, which was easily remedied by a quick trip to South America where just my longing for American-style pizza was enough to make me come crawling back to hyper-consumption and information overload.
Anyway, the point is that the most challenging part of being an information worker (And I mean information, not knowledge. Knowledge is useful information, and most information work is not useful) is actually getting things done and avoiding distractions, which is hard if you have access to the internet. With the current fucked-up system of online advertising, most of the internet is literally designed to consume as many possible seconds of your time and get you to click on irrelevant shit. And really, with all those calls to action for ‘cool singles in your area,’ and ‘top 100 most valuable startups’ how can you really get anything done?
But on top of that, our workspaces are invaded by bullshit. We get email all the time from social networks, digests from ‘culture blogs,’ and requests from Observer writers asking you to spy on startups or write guest columns for them. How can you actually get your allotted 15 minutes of work per day done with all that?
As it so happens, I just read a book that’s supposedly about working less and getting rich, but really it’s about how to not use your computer like an idiot. It’s called The 4-Hour Workweek, by Tim Ferris, and while you feel like a marketing/sales douche just by reading it, it has some great advice. Mainly, close your goddamn email window for a second.
The second you don’t get little notifications that you have a new message, a new IM, a new like on your sandwich photo blog, your computer suddenly becomes incredibly powerful, and you have much more time to finish all the crap you were supposed to do.
Mr. Ferris recommends initially that you check your email twice a day–start with 12 p.m. and 4 p.m., and deal with everything in a focused session of 10 to 15 minutes at those times. If you must, compose an auto-response telling people that you’ll get back to them at X time and to give you a call if it’s urgent. I didn’t bother with that because I’ve always had my number in my email footer, and nothing I do is really that important or urgent. (Also, auto-responses are really, really annoying.) I did get a few more calls, but on the whole nobody noticed and while I’m not sure I’m getting more done, I am spending less time on the computer in general.
Supposedly, Mr. Ferris checks his email once a week, presumably in the form of curated summaries from his dozen virtual assistants, while training for his next extreme sports challenge or demonstrating his technique for 15 minute orgasms (see the 4-Hour Body for that one) for for an entrepreneurial bikini model conference in Thailand. Clearly, we can’t all roll like Tim Ferris, but I think his basic idea of closing your Gmail window most of the time is fucking great.
- Don’t use whatever ‘priority inbox’ is. Passing off more responsibility to machines is the last thing to do.
- Don’t use the Gmail/whatever web UI. Those tend to have IM, which is an even deeper distraction.
- I recommend Sparrow if you’re on a Mac. Or Mail if you don’t want to spend $10.
- Put your number in your footer.
- Check your email twice a day, then close it. Or hell, check it three times, or six times daily. As long as you do it at some sort of regular interval and mostly don’t have it open to distract you.
- Get your shit done with your newfound free time.
According to Mr. Ferris, these are all just stepping stones to working remotely (which is something I happen to do and I have to say is pretty awesome) and then ultimately creating some sort of profitable company that pays you thousands per week while you get massages in Southeast Asia and go kiteboarding. I have yet to figure that part out, but the first bit about email has already made my days much more pleasant. I hope it will for you too.
For Inbox Heroes, Betabeat is curious about your war stories, productivity tips and moments of extraordinary email. Send us an email to tips et betabeat daught com with “war on email” in the subject line and a paragraph or two (or more!) about how you deal with your influx of electronic letters.