Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things.This is from Donald Knuth, renowned computer scientist and Professor Emeritus of the Art of Computer Programming at Stanford University.(link)
While lesser mortals like me will still need to use e-mail heavily i think it's important to not allow technology to come in our way, especially our capacity to stay focused on a task. I'm sure almost all of us at some stage have been distracted by checking our e-mail for an update from the admin team on tomorrows flight tickets. Or fooling ourselves into thinking that "we need a break" and hence check e-mail. And the worst culprit - the Blackberry device.
An excellent aid to efficiency it can be a bad accomplice to distractor goons in our head.And with the amount of spam coming into our mail boxes, it's irritating to have the Blackberry beep and checking it only to find an unsolicited e-mail for a training programme. And many have this fascination for replying to e-mails within a minute of its coming into our mail boxes (i confess i do to, to a certain extent)
One thing that has worked for me in office is to put the Blackberry on "e-mail silent" mode and checking e-mails once every two hours on the laptop itself. I had also got into the bad habit of replying to e-mails in the dead of the night - these would be mostly e-mails from countries on the wrong side of the time zone. I've stopped this too. I use the "bedside mode" in the "phone calls only" option.
Maybe another good strategy is to have an alarm ring at some fixed time in the day - say 3 pm - this would be the "e-mail checking" time.
Lastly, i think it also pays to be smart with how you handle e-mail traffic. One has to learn to sift through e-mail rapidly to:
1) Read Now
2) Read Later (though a large number in this list is psychologically damaging when you see your mailbox)
3) Forward and Forget (like "please tell your team" memos)
4) Forward to action ("Hi S, can you pls. see this and reply. Thanks")
The one big (and common!) mistake people do is to read through every 'forward' that comes their way. Please don't! You are not doing anyone a favour by reading their e-mails. Most people who forward something to you may do it just because you are on their list. Or that some information may be useful to you. It is your responsibility to figure out whether something needs to be read or not. With the information deluge that each of us is going through, sound info-sifting strategies have almost become a survival game.
(P.S - i've written it as e-mail and not email as Prof. Knuth suggest at the end of the page here - yeah, so i do one more keystroke. Big Deal. Taking this logic forward we should do away with so much punctuation and nuance (why caps at the start?).)