E-mail interruptions get on my nerves

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  • By Dave Sutherland
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Here's what MSN astrology recommended to us Capricorns: 

If you're a true Capricorn, you may spit out your latte when you read the title of your bestselling recommendation, but trust us - it's not a typo! The 4-Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss may go against your hard work ethic, but there are definitely some things you can learn from this book. Overworked Capricornians looking for a change will benefit from the succinct wisdom in Ferriss's words, and even skeptical Goats will at least learn how to be a bit more efficient even if you aren't ready to chuck your nine-to-five workdays! 

So, I bit. I bought. I read. Lo and behold! It hit a nerve. A big fat nerve. 

The book was an interesting read and it was well designed. But, I'm too old-school-baby-boomer to take all these recommendations: Fire your job, outsource your life, set up a business selling an overpriced product over the internet, hire someone else to make lots of money for you, delegate, automate, telecommute, work 4-hours a week, and do what you really want - like Tango competitions in Buenos Aires. 

I enjoyed three subjects: Firing your job, interrupting interruptions, and outsourcing your life. This article is about those pesky e-mail interruptions (expletive replaced). 

Lately, I have not been productive. I was going days without accomplishing much more than responding to e-mail pop-ups, to people showing up at my office door with problems, and to folks on the phone with questions. Customers, bosses, coworkers. Do this, suspense that, need by COB today, mandatory training, not to mention what I'm really supposed to do. Yes, its been busy. But, not that busy! Why was I falling behind? And why couldn't I catch up? 

I work with numbers, spreadsheets, raw data. I concentrate. I admit that I get lost in it. I mean, really lost. More like spellbound. Enthralled. The more interesting the problem, the closer the deadline, the harder I concentrate. Total focus. 



One of those e-mail pop-ups appears and disrupts my concentration. It's a "Bratwurst-sale" e-mail. Another one. It's over. My focus is lost for at least 20 minutes. 

I have heard when this happens to people like me it takes from 15 to 45 minutes to regain concentration. I just can't turn it on and off like a light switch. And I realized I was spending my whole day getting nailed by these surprise attack e-mails. And they were stealing precious time away from my job. All to be informed about "Bratwursts." Talk about information underload! 

What is Ferris's solution? Simple. Batch process the e-mail interruptions. Only read your e-mails twice a day, preferably once a day, and don't read your e-mail first thing in the morning. And turn off those "You have mail" warnings. 

So I did. I figured out how to turn off the e-mail pop-ups. And suddenly I had more than enough time to concentrate and get things done. No more interruptions. And I caught up. And I'm staying ahead of the game, for now. 

I actually look at my e-mails more than twice a day. My 55-year-old bladder dictates the timing, every sixty to ninety minutes. Thirty minutes, if I'm in a meeting with my boss. So I have natural interruptions throughout the day anyway. It's the perfect time for checking the e-mail pile, when I come back from the potty break, but before re-emersion in the spreadsheets. I can delete six out of the seven Bratwurst-sale e-mails and just read the last one before I delete it, too. 

I have answered two of the most important questions in life: Just how many Bratwurst-sale e-mails do I really need to read? And when should I read them? The answers are: one and once a day. 

No one, not even my boss, has said a thing about my not immediately responding to every single cotton pickin' e-mail. I made a change to my basic, daily processes and no one noticed. 

How do I deal with the people interrupters that show up at my desk or call on the phone and I can't figure it out within 30 seconds? That's easy too. "I'm busy right now. Could you please send me an e-mail? I'll get back to you later." And yes that really works too. 

There's much more in the 4-Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferris, Crown Publishing 2007, if you're interested.