Tony Wolski

Guidelines for less distracting email


I recently started checking email only once per week. Last week I spent a mere twenty-eight minutes in my inbox. The difference between this new routine and the old, distracted, daily one is massive, and has made a significant impact on my ability to get big, important things done. However Derek Sivers’ recent post on using a private email address for close friends made me question whether checking email so infrequently would have the detrimental effect of removing a source of connection with my family and friends. I wondered whether I should consider a similar approach.

After some though my answer is a resounding no; my way is just fine. Firstly, I hate duplication, and fanatically try to reduce the number of accounts I manage. In my opinion there are better ways to filter the signal from the noise than by opening a separate email account. Second, I don’t want to check email often or be distracted by notifications. Friends and family can reach me by phone when necessary, emergency or otherwise. A delay of a few days for more thoughtful correspondence shouldn’t matter for everything else.

With that said, there are a couple of guidelines you can follow to extract as much value from email as possible while removing its ability to take valuable time and attention from you.

Firstly, decide on a schedule to check email. Cal Newport has a lot of great advice on this, particularly in his book Deep Work. Pick a schedule you’re comfortable with and avoid checking email outside those times. I’m seeing huge benefits by stretching it to a week, a duration that felt uncomfortable to begin with but now feels about right. The longer the better in my opinion.

Second, hide everything by default. Sometimes you have to access your inbox. Maybe you need to find a reference number for accommodation or travel ticket, or you urgently need to send a message. The last thing you want in situations like this is to be presented with a list of fresh messages (distractions) when you open your mail client. So filter everything out by default. You can do this with a negating filter, e.g. message does not contain some random text. Now when you open your mail client’s home page you can action what you originally intended without being pulled down rabbit holes. There are paid apps like Inbox When Ready that do this, but why pay when you can achieve the same result for free?

That’s it. Two simple rules to ensure you’re in control of your inbox rather than the other way around. Outside of these two guidelines you can get as complicated as you want with filters and rules to segregate the signal from the noise, but in my experience simple is better. Filter rules have a tendency of metastasizing into complicated messes that take more time to manage than the messages they’re trying to suppress. So keep them to a minimum. The goal is to spend more time on the stuff that matters and less on stuff that doesn’t.

Your thoughts? I'd love to hear them. Please get in contact.