Five ways of keeping email from running your life

December 19, 2006

It happens to all of us. We’re slogging through that key paragraph in the Discussion or outlining the logic of a new experiment. Its tough going, incremental work.

Think I’ll check my email.

Now, email is good. But so is sodium, football, and a warm puppy. The fact is, its the potential utility of checking your mail that makes it so insidious. After all, we may hear from that high school buddy, lover, or ex (and maybe even hit the trifecta in a single message). And we do subscribe to Nature table of contents, we are waiting for a manuscript revision from a colleague. All of these are useful things.

But we were making….incremental….slow….progress on something that was probably more important. And its not like that mail is going to blow away. Or that Jack Bauer, typing with his tongue bouncing in the trunk of a Lincoln Continental, needs your advice at this very moment.

It just is so easy to point click, hit refresh and wait for the little spinning disk to do its thing. Funny thing, that spinning disk. Kinda like a slot machine. And Kathy Sierra reports there may just be a reason. Its called Intermittent Reinforcement, a highly effective training method in which the subject (that’s you) is rewarded not every time she hits the button, but every so often, with most rewards being small (“Great, Oecologia has a new table of contents”) or nonexistent (“Greetings dear friend…”). Casinos figured this out a long time ago, as have dog trainers.

So here are a few tips to make email work for you, not keep you from getting your stuff done.

Update 1 February 2006:   WTF?  Its gone.  The secrets to email productivity gone forever below the fold.   No idea what happened.  While I do a post-mortem, check out a similar post on the ever dependable 43 Folders.

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