The Switching Cost

I want to close my recent series of posts on email with a practical observation that’s often missed:

The main productivity cost of email is not the time you spend reading and replying to messages, but instead the abrupt context shift caused when you switch your attention from the task at hand to the cognitive cacophony of an inbox.

As I write about in Deep Work (see also: this excerpt), when you shift your attention from one target to another, the first target leaves behind an attention residue that can linger for at least 10 to 20 minutes reducing your cognitive capacity.

(One oft-cited study found the impact of these shifts on your mental ability to be comparable to being stoned.)

The neural damage, in other words, is caused during the first moments of firing up your inbox. Whether you then go on to spend just a couple of minutes or a half hour wrangling your message doesn’t much change this impact.

The Power of Process

The obvious conclusion to this observation is that you should batch your email checking to a small number of sessions per day; i.e., the now famous, “I check my email twice a day, at 10 and 2” aspiration.

But there’s a more subtle and often more effective conclusion lurking here as well. As I argue in Rule #4 of Deep Work: write longer emails.

In more detail, I promote a technique called process-centric email. It works as follows:

  • When sending or replying to an email, identify the goal this emerging email thread is trying to achieve. For example, perhaps its goal is to synchronize a plan for an upcoming meeting with a collaborator or to agree on a time to grab coffee.
  • Next, come up with a process that gets you and your correspondent to this goal while minimizing the number of back and forth messages required.
  • Explain this process in the email so that you and your recipient are on the same page.

For example, assume a friend sends you a note that reads:

Do you want to grab coffee sometime soon?

Resist the urge to reply: “okay, what works for you?”

Sure, that message would be quick to write, but it does not outline a clear process that minimizes back and forth messages. Indeed, it is likely consigning you to a long, attention zapping thread.

Here, by contrast, is a process-centric reply:

Sounds great. I propose we meet at the Starbucks on campus. Below I have listed four dates and times over the next two weeks. If any of these work for you, let me know and I will consider your reply confirmation that the meeting is set. If none of these times work, then call me or text me on my cell (<number>) during one of my upcoming office hours (Tue/Thur from 12:30 to 1:30), when I’m sure to be around, and we’ll find something that works.

We can first agree that the process-centric reply will take more time to write. If you respond to all relevant messages in this manner, the minutes required to clean your inbox will definitely increase.

But this doesn’t matter.

What you’re minimizing with process-centric emailing is not the time you spend in your inbox, but the number of times you have to open it.

Put another way: if you respond in this manner, your occasional inbox visits might take more time, but in-between these sessions, you’ll be left blissfully and productively free of the necessity to continually check back in to keep non-process centric threads proceeding at a socially acceptable pace.

I’ll admit that I sometimes struggle with this technique because the urge to get out of the inbox fast is so powerful. But I’m always happy when I persevere.

(Image by Bryan Alexander)