I used to be good at replying to emails on time.

When tens of emails came in every day, I would sort them out and I would reply right away to anything that needed or caught my attention. The so-called Inbox Zero wasn’t a specific goal that required effort: “it just was”.

Things have changed over the years and I am now quite awful at dealing with personal email. Some emails can go weeks (or, I confess, months) before getting a reply. Paradoxically, the more important an email is, the longer it can take me to reply.

There are probably many reasons behind this change in behavior, but the one that “recently” struck me is rooted on my smartphone. (Where “recently” means three years ago or so. Ironically, this is a draft post that I’m reviving just now…)

But why?

There are two issues at play here:

  • The first issue is rooted in the smartphone’s 24/7 online capabilities.

    I now check for new email dozens of times a day: what once was a task that happened at specific times and that had focused attention is now a task that thinly spreads over the course of the day: 5 minutes in the subway, 1 minute in the elevator, 10 minutes over breakfast…

    The lack of long, focused periods to handle email is a problem: the amount of time required to reply to an important message is significant and doesn’t fit in those short bursts of attention. As a result, emails don’t get responded to and pile up. And as they pile up, they show up over and over again in the same message list, waiting for a reply, causing tone-deafness to their presence. After all, if they stay there and are constantly visible, I won’t miss them and I’ll get back to them, right? Right. Sounds good, doesn’t work.

  • The second issue is with the smartphone itself.

    You see: I dread typing more than a trivial sentence on the smartphone: it’s an exercise fraught with annoyance. The on-screen keyboard is relatively good in that it gets things mostly right, but as soon as you have to type something “non-standard” (and many technical words qualify here), its auto-correction and prediction capabilities are infuriating.

    In other words: when I see that the email requires anything more than just a single sentence, my mind automatically enters panic mode and says “oh no, not on this device; let’s handle this later”… and the later never comes.

Combine these two and you have my recipe for disaster. Because I postpone dealing with emails until later, hoping that the “later” will be soon, and because I refuse to reply to emails that require my full attention from the smartphone, the replies get postponed indefinitely.

It doesn’t matter that I check email on the computer all the time either: the bad procrastination practices induced by the smartphone have spilled into my interactions with the computer, which was once a place where only focused work was possible.

What’s the solution?

Ah, if I could tell you. Still trying to figure it out.

I could cut email from the smartphone completely, but sometimes, sometimes, it’s oh-so-handy.

I could even dump the smartphone altogether but there are things—like Maps—that are now essential on a day-to-day basis.

What seems to work lately is to immediately put away any important email to a “to-reply” folder. The problem, of course, is to remember and make time to deal with the messages in this folder. The way I’m “fixing” this is by sticking a task in my “weekly review” list to deal with postponed emails. And the “weekly review” is a calendar entry against myself that helps me stay on top of planning and periodic maintenance tasks. More on this another day once the practices have truly solidified.

But, just wondering… am I alone in this problem?

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