It makes us feel stressed, it makes us feel guilty, it makes us feel eternally behind. You know what I’m talking about: e-mail. The once-magical form of communication that has now taken on a kind of psychic overhead. It’s an unsavory duty that you can’t escape, like moving your car to avoid parking tickets if you live in Manhattan.
But since e-mail has become a sort of “can’t live with it, can’t live without it” medium, this post is not about getting rid of e-mail, making an e-mail charter, or dispensing more rules related to how to e-mail. It’s about the things that we can do AROUND e-mail and other daily distractions to make sure we get the really important stuff done.
1. Get up early (or stay up late)
A recent study conducted by Christoph Randler, a biology professor at the University of Education at Heidelberg, backs up the theory that early risers tend to have a more proactive—and thus productive—mindset. But, regardless of whether you’re an early riser or a night owl, there are major benefits to working outside of the traditional 9-to-5 window. Most importantly, a psychic weight is lifted. For instance, ignoring e-mail during the regular workday— when you know people are expecting a response—can be quite challenging. When you’re working off-peak hours, it’s easier to shut out distractions and focus whole-heartedly on the tasks that require your full creative powers. More thoughts from Zen Habits’ Leo Babauta.
2. Do your most important task first
What’s the most important thing for you to accomplish today? Decide what it is and do it first, before you check your e-mail. As Lifehacker’s Gina Trapani writes: “Accomplishing something out of the gate sets the tone for the rest of your day and guarantees that no matter how many fires you're tasked with putting out the minute you open your email client, you still can say that you got something done. Once you're ‘open for business’ and paying attention to incoming requests, it's too easy to get swept away into the craziness.”
3. Try batching tasks of similar types
We have a limited amount of brain power and focus to work with every day. According to multitasking research, every time the brain switches tasks, it takes us 25 minutes to get back up to speed. (And, yes, checking e-mail does count as a different task!) Batching tasks of similar types together helps you get into the “zone,” and execute more quickly and efficiently. Right now, for instance, I’m taking care of writing/editorial-related tasks: putting together this blog post, writing a new bio for a colleague, and then editing some posts for my own website. After this “writing block,” I will respond to e-mail for 30 minutes, and then focus on an accounting/budgeting block.
4. Plan meetings during your low-energy periods
As we all know, a single meeting can easily wreck an entire morning’s work, draining you of energy and interrupting your workflow. It’s not always possible, but wherever you can strive to batch meetings together. Try to keep some days meeting-free, and when you can’t group them together during a time of day—like the mid-afternoon dip—that you typically have low energy.
5. Take breaks away from your desk for deep thinking
At our desks, we are never alone. Even if you work from home in complete isolation, an ever-growing stream of communications are constantly chattering away. E-mail, Facebook, Twitter, etc. compete for our attention and focus, scattering our minds and fragmenting our productivity. And even if we have the willpower to turn these channels off, their “closeness” can still impede our thinking. When you really need to do some big-picture thinking, step away from your desk and just use good, old-fashioned pen and paper to jot down ideas.
6. Respond in the right medium/consider picking up the phone
Often, we spend too much time trying to compose a “tactful” response, when we should really just be responding in a different (and more constructive) medium. If you’re struggling with a particularly difficult e-mail for instance, ask yourself if e-mail is really the best medium to respond in. If the situation is tense or requires the communication of subtlety or feeling, e-mail is almost NEVER the right medium. Consider having a face-to-face conversation or picking up the phone.
7. Simplify your tools
Are you working in Photoshop, when you could be sketching? Are you fiddling around in PowerPoint, when you could just storyboard your talk on index cards? We often confuse the medium of content delivery with the actual content, and waste a lot of time in the process. For instance, it’s much more efficient to figure out the content of a talk you’re going to give by writing it on index cards, and then rearranging, cutting and editing the cards BEFORE you design the PowerPoint. (Why? Because you don’t need to design the PowerPoint cards you’re ultimately going to cut or rewrite!) New software or technology doesn’t always make things faster. Question your tools.
This post by J.K. Glei is based on research by the Behance team. Behance runs the Behance Creative Network, the 99% productivity think thank, the Action Method project management application, and the Creative Jobs List.