In terms of our interaction, email used to be essentially snail mail that you could send and receive instantly. But our interaction with email has moved far beyond this simple analogue of open mailbox, get messages. The postman comes to my house once a day; whatever letters come, that’s all there is until tomorrow. The mail is a daily ritual, a one-off thing. Email is more like a constant trickle (or a constant stream or even a firehose). I can check for messages as often as I like, and modern email programs have all kinds of features to allow incoming messages to announce themselves: some subtle, some not. Mail messages are passive, but email messages have become active agents! They flash notifications, make noise, or increase little red counters while vying for your (limited) attention.
The pull of email is very strong. For me, when I know there are messages in my inbox, I’m incredibly tempted to deal with them, or at least read them, even if I’m working on something important. A passive inbox creates more than enough temptation for me; email which asks for my attention is too much.
The daily ritual is effective for regular mail because delivery times are measured in days, and not too distracting because you take care of everything in one go. Dealing with email as it comes in might be very effective, but because of the myth of multitasking, it torpedoes productivity on anything that requires careful thought. Every time we change from one task to another, it takes a while to regain focus. Some studies have suggested this is upwards of 15 minutes! Even if the total time you spend on email is the same, the more you break it up throughout your day, the less other things you’ll get done.
Many popular email programs have these distracting message notifications turned on by default. Here’s how to turn them off:
Microsoft Outlook 2003/2007
Tools > Options from the main menu, click Email Options on the Preferences tab. Then click Advanced Email Options. In this dialog box you can untick any (or all) of the options under When new items arrive in my Inbox
In Windows this is under Tools > Options > General > When a new message arrives. For Linux, it’s under Edit > Preferences…, on Mac OS X, it’s Thunderbird > Preferences…
Entourage > Preferences > Notifications and untick all the unwanted notifications.
I also like getting my email on the iPhone. It’s great to be able to read and sort messages while on the bus or waiting in line, but I’d go nuts with it constantly alerting me of incoming email. You can disable these under Settings > Sounds…