Gmail techniques to change your (work) life

Imagine what you could do if you spent half as much time in email. Learn how using Google Mail as the example.

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Joel Spolsky wrote in 2004: "Sometimes I just can't get anything done. Sure, I come into the office, putter around, check my email every ten seconds, read the web, even do a few brainless tasks like paying the American Express bill. But getting back into the flow of writing code just doesn't happen." 

Now, 16 years after Spolsky wrote Fire and Motion, too many of us are still goofing around in our email all day. And we've added Skype, Slack, Teams, and a bunch of other things that can pop up and interrupt us. 

SEE: Zoom vs. Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Cisco WebEx and Skype: Choosing the right video-conferencing apps for you (TechRepublic)

Of all of them, in my experience, email is the worst. It grows insidiously as you sign up for an 8% discount on coffee or to get a white paper. Suddenly, you are spending 10 minutes a day just deleting email that you for some reason actually asked to get. Ten minutes a day, by the way, is about 4.5 business days a year. 

Today I'm going to talk about taking a whack out of email—a serious wack. It's easy, and it works. As an example, I will use Google Mail, the world's most popular free email system. Our goal here is to get out of email. This should be as easy as checking email three times a day—in the morning, at lunch, and an hour before leaving the office. Sadly, the human brain is too easily tricked by the new and different, leading us to what I call "work avoidance," which looks a lot like what Joel Spolsky described. So, we'll layer on a few mind hacks to get you working and avoid interruptions.

Not only does Google filter out your spam, it can even use artificial intelligence (AI) to split the inbox into promotions, updates, social, and, well, email you should actually care about. If you aren't doing this, stop and do it now. Go into Settings, Inbox, and check the categories (Figure A).

Figure A

Figure A - Inbox Categories in Gmail

Minimize your distractions

In addition to keeping Gmail closed, keep Slack closed as well (if your company allows it). The only instant-response tool I use is texting, to coordinate when timing is tight. Some companies make a conscious tradeoff to lose productivity for responsiveness and want you to have notifications turned on for some collaboration tool all the time. That's fine. Still, make a tally of all the different things you have that can create notifications to distract you from the work itself and get rid of them. Reduce the allowable notifications to one or perhaps two. Personally, I allow personal pings on Slack (but discourage it) and tell people that if it matters, text me, but it had better matter.

Socialize a reasonable response

A few years ago it was all the rage to set an auto-responder to say you checked email three times a day. My inbox filled up with auto-responders. Don't do that.

Instead, remind people that email is for non-urgent communication. If they need an answer, they can text or use an invasive app in which you allow notifications. Perhaps you allow people to hail you on Slack: They need to realize this will take you out of a flow state and should do it rarely.

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Think about the expectation that emails are responded to immediately. How could a creative person ever get anything done? The sad answer is that many of them don't; they have days very much like Joel Spolsky.

Optimize your email. Set expectations. Focus on the work. You might find yourself the most productive person on your team.

Lots and lots of unsubscribing

Block out a half-hour of your day to just unsubscribe from things from your inbox. The goal here is that when an email appears in your inbox, it actually means something. This should be rare enough that you don't get a thrill from checking email, and can get back to work.

The discipline is to not use email as a distraction from the real work. There are a hundred ways to do this, from Pomodoro timing creative work, blocking calendar time for creative work, or having an app like freedom.to block websites and apps during certain times of the day. With a little bit of discipline, you can, of course, ignore all those things. They can be a little bit like dieting by only having carrots and celery in the house, creating that little bit of extra work to cheat. 

Keeping the interesting things out of your inbox can help you get back to work. Check the categories like Forums and Social media with a quick glance, and you'll soon realize none of them need an active response. They are essentially clutter. Eventually you'll just check them for the occasional AI mistake.

A word on management

Back in 1987, in the book PeopleWare, Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister pointed out that to be effective, knowledge workers need large uninterrupted blocks of time. Yet, they said, the most effective managers were interrupted on average every three minutes. For you, your Integrated Development Environment (IDE) is email, plus perhaps Slack and meetings. If you need to respond quickly, the techniques above can help you eliminate things not worth responding to at all, to focus on the things that do need attention.

Know what you need to be effective, then bend email and the calendar to your will. These things are supposed to be tools for our benefit. When we become slaves to them, it might be time to change our approach.

If you want more, check out even more specific Gmail productivity hacks.

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