Productivity does not = progress

My default browser window at work is my inbox. I usually spend more time on emails than I do on anything else, and I regularly send and receive over 100 emails a day.

I’ve come to believe that my inbox is a major distraction, and a terrible time-waster.

When I’m responding to emails, I’m dancing to somebody else’s tune. They’re setting my agenda, telling me what I need to do. Yet I feel like almost every email deserves to be read, and that most deserve a reply.

That simply cannot be true. Many of the emails I receive – and, I suspect, a number of those I send – lead nowhere, produce nothing, create zero. So why worry about them? And why let them eat up my time?

Even those that don’t need to be read take up time – I spend a second or two figuring out that they can be deleted, then another second or two deleting them, and all that adds up. In the course of a year, I reckon I spend roughly 4 hours (almost half a working day!) just deleting unwanted emails.

Managing your inbox can be addictive. It’s the acceptable, work-related version of Facebook or Twitter: you quickly develop a habit, checking back every few minutes to see if something new has appeared. And because it’s the acceptable work-related version, it’s easy to believe that doing so makes you productive.

I really feel that the opposite is the case. Very, very rarely do I receive an email about something that has to be done instantly, or even within a couple of hours. There’s another means of reaching me if it’s urgent anyway: the phone!

So why be a slave to the drip-drip-drip of the inbox? Keeping it neat and tidy might be pleasing; responding quickly to others might create a feeling of productivity. But productivity is not progress.

To make progress, I need to spend quality, focused time on difficult, important problems.

To make progress, I need to spend more time talking to my colleagues and to people outside the company.

To make progress, I need to spend time thinking quietly, away from distractions, about things that really matter to the way I do my job and the work I produce.

Sometimes I’ll need to use email to help me do those things. But starting tomorrow, I intend to break my inbox habit.

An hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon should be more than enough to respond to the important stuff. I’ll try it for a few weeks and if I can reduce my inbox time further, I will. Anything that doesn’t get done in that time is not important enough.

So farewell, inbox – most seductive but unfaithful of friends.

From now on I shall work without you.

Author: toddmgreen

I really like making internet projects. I work on apps, games and websites at a TV company. I write stuff, make stuff, and accidentally break stuff. You should probably follow me on Twitter - @toddmgreen.

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