How to wield the double-emailed sword of productivity

Posted by in Productivity

E-mail. The humble, initially text-based, form of communication has been with us for decades, and during that time span been transformed from obscurity through prominence into the scourge of the workplace – which isn’t e-mail’s fault; rather, it’s ours.

Back in the early nineties (with which I assumed I would never initiate a sentence), most of our communication took place on paper. I’m old enough to remember, yet young enough to retain something of a nostalgic infatuation with paper as my primary outlet for creativity all the way through high school. About that time, e-mail happened.

I watched my father, then working as the daily manager of a production facility, observe its arrival with initial skepticism – which was rapidly transformed into reluctant glee once he realized that he no longer had to resort to using the damned fax machine if something was urgent. Nowadays, he’d drop you like a piece of soap in a prison shower if you cut his e-mail umbilical cord.

Those old enough to remember may already understand that I’m working my way up to two of the greatest advantages of e-mail over the way we used to do things (read: paper): speed and accessibility. Nowadays, e-mail is everywhere – on your PC, on the web, on your smartphone. It’s even on most dumbphones. And if you haven’t already been interrupted by it while reading this post, good for you.

All that glitters isn’t gold

In the beginning, e-mail was a godsend – similar to paper, but infinitely faster. Its speed and accessibility, however, made quick work of the surprisingly intricate psychological aspects of sending a letter. It didn’t cost anything; there was no printing; no envelope; no getting the postage right or remembering the return address.

Simply put, it didn’t take the same effort, which brings us to trouble. You see, there’s an inverse relationship betwen the frequency of transactions (regardless of which unit of measure is applied) and their cost; as the latter goes down, the former goes up. Translation: sending e-mail costs less both in terms of labour and currency, so you send more of them.

And at this point, speed and accessibility become our enemies. Imagine, for a moment, that you’re back in the stone age and need to distribute some information within a business. Do you print, staple and meticulously address or deliver a copy to A) just the people that need the information, or do you B) include three more just in case they might be interested?

Where things go wrong

The CC: you couldn’t care less about. The dialog which spiralled off in three different directions, and now you can’t find just the right version of that damned attachment. Internal mailing lists. Nag-mail from middle management. These broken scenarioes exist for one reason: our undiscerning use of e-mail as a catch-all communications channel.


Because e-mail is fast. Because it lets you attach almost whatever you want. And, most of all, because it’s universal and ubiquitous. Like text messages, e-mail is the lowest common denominator. Everyone has it. Everyone checks it at the very least regularly; some religiously. And us humans? We’re simple that way. We like fast, we like easy, and reliability is – truth be told – a bit of a turn-on.

Whether at home or at work, e-mail just works. And that’s the problem. Everyone has it now, and we’re all idiots. We’ve all sent a CC: that shouldn’t have been sent. Or resorted to e-mail for getting a file over to our smartphone. Or to check up on something… or someone. It’s asinine, and it’s all our fault.

Stuffing the cat back in the bag

I have what’s called a love-hate relationship with e-mail. I prune my inbox several times a day, but then only to delete whatever I do not need; archive reference information; and generate or update tasks from what remains. It’s a simple process, and it’s designed for one purpose alone: to counter instinctual responses that dictate I reply… right away.

And why do I do things this way? Because inboxes are useless for being anything but inboxes. They contain only what’s being sent specifically to them (at the mercy of the sender; not the recipient), and to add insult to injury they sort incoming e-mail based on… time? Or, as a surprisingly large number of people are wont to do: by sender?

These factors may be of use when you’re trying to find something in what is essentially a 4,000 feet high pile of papers, but they are blisteringly useless as far as productivity is concerned.  Prioritizing and context generate productivity, and with the exception of non-hierarchical categories and a coloured flags, inboxes serve productivity similarly to how dogs serve cats.

Your inbox, in essence, is a place where others inquire for your time and attention – and alas, it’s all too easy to fall prey to what instinctively feels like the appropriate social response: to respond. Somewhere, someone awaits your reply, and you have to get through all of these, and that one about signing up for the soccer game is important and… oh my.

Two hours later, you haven’t gotten anything important done. Fortunately, the antidote is simple: get a task manager. Preferably a good one, like MyLifeOrganized for Windows or OmniFocus for Mac. And don’t ever do anything with an e-mail again except for delete, archive or process it into your task manager.

Bonus tip, you ask? But of course. Don’t ever, ever open an e-mail more than once. Just picture yourself opening a letter, then taping it shut only to open it once more and you’ll understand why.