Email is one of the two-edged swords of productivity that we deal with every day. You can be incredibly effective with it, and you can get sucked in and lose your entire morning. You can be in touch and take care of business from anywhere, but you’re always in touch and can be expected to take care of business from anywhere.
Ideally, you check email only at a few regular times per day. You don’t leave your email open in the background while you work, and you have disabled notifications so every incoming message doesn’t ding! its cry for your attention.
There are those times where you’re just waiting to hear back from someone. Or there’s that one important thread that you legitimately do need to keep up on. Or what if that special someone writes? If you’re constantly checking, not only is your attention on your inbox, but you can easily get sidetracked and start going down rabbit holes that have nothing to do with that one email.
Fortunately, your email client might be able to help. Here are three ways your Mac or iPhone can monitor your incoming messages for the ones that really do need to interrupt you.
Custom alert sounds. Your mail client can play a sound when a new message arrives. You should turn that off. A sound on every new message is too distracting, but you can set up a mail rule to play a custom sound whenever you receive a message that meets the criteria. I wouldn’t recommend using more than two or three sounds this way; it’s too hard to remember what each sound means. Just use a distinct sound to get your attention and check your inbox for more information.
VIP senders. Mail on OS X and iOS lets you tag individual senders as VIPs. On OS X, click the star next to the sender’s name. On iOS, tap on the sender, then Add to VIP. If you use iCloud, your list of VIPs will sync to all devices.
You can set up separate rules for how your computer or phone alerts you when you receive a message from a VIP (including using Sender is a VIP as a Mail rule). Messages from VIPs are shown in a special VIP inbox that you can check without getting distracted by other, less-important emails. (Don’t worry—the messages are still stored in your normal inbox. It’s just a smart search.)
VIP threads. iOS takes the VIP concept one step further. When you send an email, tap the bell icon in the subject line to mark the thread as Important. You can do the same when you reply to an existing thread (tap on the subject line to see the bell). Important threads will trigger the same notifications as VIP senders, so you know when someone has responded.
Notifications themselves aren’t evil. They’re useful. They let you know that something important has happened, something that needs your attention.
When we’re constantly bombarded with notifications, we stop trusting them. They become part of the noise of business as usual.
The next time you notice yourself urgently checking email for something specific (and not just because you’re bored or avoiding doing real work), ask yourself why. Spend a few minutes training your computer what you’re looking for. It can spare the cycles to screen every mail that comes in. Let your brain do something else.