I used to keep my email inbox open all the time while working. One monitor displayed my active project—a spreadsheet, document or web browser—while the other monitor displayed my inbox. This way I could stay on top of everything at the same time. I was king of the world.
But then a coworker suggested I didn’t have to work with an open inbox. At first I didn’t trust him. It seemed unproductive, irresponsible, and rude. But one day curiosity got the better of me, and I closed my inbox. I liked it so much that now I always close my email during focused tasks. I think you will, too.
Here are four quick reasons why:
1. There’s no such thing as multi-tasking.
Dealing with email while doing another task may seem like heightening your productivity, but actually it’s not. According to Psychologist Christian Jarrett, “For activities that require conscious attention, there is really no such thing as multi-tasking, only task switching—the process of flicking the mind back and forth between different demands” (Manage Your Day-to-Day). So rather than multi-tasking, we’re just switching tasks.
2. Refocusing on every task creates unnecessary mental strain.
Furthermore, task switching creates unnecessary mental strain. Returning to a task requires us to refocus on it: we have to remember what we were doing and then we have to get back to the same frame of mind we had when we abandoned it. It can be exhausting and frustrating to keep switching and refocusing with every new email that arrives. Speaking as a parent, it's like trying to have a heart-to-heart with your spouse, but being constantly interrupted by your kids.
3. Responding to email right away sets unfair expectations.
When you always answer an email right away, it can create an expectation that you’re always available. If always being available is in your job description, then so be it. But if it’s not, then closing your inbox helps to create healthier expectations for your email partners. The fact is, you do have other things to accomplish than corresponding with them.
4. Your time is one of your most valuable assets.
Time is one of the most precious things you have, because your time is something no one else has. But keeping your email open is like giving away bits of your time to everyone else. Once it’s gone, it’s lost forever. So don’t squander it. Use your time to accomplish your goals and focus on doing excellent work, and when it comes time to open your inbox, then open it with purpose. No one will protect your time for you, so do it yourself.
Contrary to what I once thought, closing my email during focused tasks has made me more productive, more responsible, and more courteous by setting healthy expectations. I challenge you to try it. Turn off those pesky notifications and alerts, or even go cold turkey and close your email program right now.
If you’ve had victory over your email inbox, comment back with your story and/or suggestions...just don't expect a quick reply!