You may already know that I’m in favour of batching administrative tasks like email. Unless you have the type of job where your primary task is to stay on top of an inbox, there are a lot of advantages to setting boundaries around when you look at your email and when you keep the app closed and the notifications turned off.
(The biggest advantage, of course, is that you can use the time you’re not checking email to get the rest of your work done.)
However, even though I have blocked off specific times during the day for email processing, I still find myself quickly checking my inbox in between other projects and tasks. I’m good at keeping email closed when I need to write an article; I’m less good at keeping email closed when I’ve finished my article and have three minutes before I need to hop on a conference call.
Which means—and you know exactly how this goes, because I bet you’ve been there—I end up dialling into the call a minute or two late (or on time, but distracted) because something in my inbox caught my attention and pulled me away from what I was actually supposed to be doing.
Turk, author of Kill Reply All: A Modern Guide to Online Etiquette, from Social Media to Work to Love, offers a simple solution to the email problem, as well as the problem of responding and replying to all of the other messaging systems we’re responsible for checking on a regular basis:
A key principle in maintaining Inbox Zero, for instance, is that you should only check your email inbox when you actually have time to do something with its contents. Extending this to instant messaging so that you only check WhatsApp or iMessage when you feasibly have a chance to respond could help avoid the grievous digital etiquette sin of leaving a friend “on read.” It might also relieve you of guilt.
Only check email when you have time to respond. This variation on the “batch check” idea—if you can stick to it—is an excellent way to help you prioritise both your non-inbox work and your various inboxes.
Plus, it works equally well for messaging, social media, and so on.
I’ll quickly go over the obvious exceptions to this rule: Some of us need to be ready to respond quickly to a message from a supervisor, a family member, or a school. There are also situations in which co-workers (or co-parents) may be unable to move forward on something until they hear from you, and I don’t think either Turk or I are suggesting that you stay out of your inboxes for, like, the majority of the day.
But it’s worth asking yourself, before you tap your email or pull down on your social media feeds, whether you’ll have both the time and the headspace to respond to whatever you find there.
And if you do find yourself in a situation where an email or message needs a response that you don’t have time to generate, Turk suggests sending a quick note to let the other party know that you’ve seen the message and will reply soon.
Then, you can close your inbox and get back to work—or life, as the case may be.