Good article by my buddy John Poelstra with which I vehemently agree. I’ve been doing something similar with email for a couple years now using offlineimap, synchronizing a few times a day rather than keeping an app open all day or making myself the slave of instant notifications about new email. It’s made a huge difference in my productivity. I’m not perfectly disciplined about this, but more often than not these days, I tend to ask myself before syncing my email, “Is there something coming that you need in order to make progress on your most important task right now?” Often the answer is no.
Sometimes I might be tempted to pull email out of habit, or because I need a break from my current task, or because I’m procrastinating. In all these cases there are better remedies available. Habits can be an indicator of not thinking through what you’re doing, and I’m trying to get better at that in general — so breaking this habit is something I work at constantly. If I need a break, I try to just switch tasks instead, or in the case of overall fatigue, I leave my office for a few minutes to get some perspective. Sometimes a short walk or playing with the family dog lets me come back refreshed and ready to focus. Procrastinating is a special problem that I just try to meet head on, although again I’m not the epitome of doing that well.
Email and communication are vitally important in my job, but they are not the only important thing I need to do in my job. It’s important to keep your tools in perspective and remember that the thing that makes you valuable to your employer is not just your ability to communicate — it’s the ability to communicate something worthwhile. And communicating something worthwhile often requires you to be able to focus and think clearly without yielding to the distraction of your communication tools.