Email: The Variable Reinforcement Machine

How often do you check your email per day?

Does checking your email make you more productive or less productive?

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at:

Meh. It must be “cool” to trash on email these days, as this is a sentiment I’ve heard repeated in numerous places.

Email is a tool. If you use it well and if it’s suited to solving your problems, congratulations. But like any tool if it’s making your task more difficult, it’s time to get a new tool. These one-size-fits-all “beware email” articles simply peddle fad-following sham advice suitable for the horoscope page of your local newspaper.

I check my inbox when I get a notification that I have new email. :}

There is almost no difference between pushing a button to check for new mail or clicking on every notification message.
You’re out of your current train of thoughts and need several minutes to recover from the disruption.
And yes, i’m clicking on every outlook notification because i’m curious.
Switching off the notification really makes sense.
There might be some important mails (e.g. from my boss), so i’ll set up a new rule in my mail client to play a sound for these senders.


I would prefer to funnel most of my communication through email. I then have 1 inbox to check, instead of many. Google Voice is based on the concept of one inbox.

@Sebastian Dadal

“You can never fully focus on a task if you know that a new email might arrive any second.”

So how do you focus knowing that the phone might ring any second, or someone might call round any second to ask a question? With email you can always turn off email when you absolutely need no interruptions, but you can’t ignore the phone or personal visits.

People are different, and company’s are different, but all I can say is I’m honestly far less distracted by emails (which I can quickly glance at and decide how important it is), than by constant phone calls (including having to answer for anyone out of the office), and by conversations.

I cannot understand your point. If I get automatic notification on my taskbar saying I have new email and I am able to see beginning of the message, I am not under the pressure of constantly clicking “Check new email”. The notifier does that automatically for me.
Emails are also great for communication since I don’t have to reply the moment I’m asked a question (compared to phone call) and I can check all messages that I sent and received in past months.
Moreover, it can be encrypted and signed which makes email equivalent to a signed document.
Where is that rat?

Bonuses use this variable reinforcement. Programmers deal with logic, don’t they? Yet they don’t seem to think or behave logically when it comes to bonus systems, emails or many other aspects of daily life.

Well, doctors smoke and drink, even when they deal with people suffering from the consequences of such activities.

The blind watcher maker is still working away.

I also tend to disagree. I think e-mail is largely a blessing. You just have to be a little bit disciplined. If you’re not, then offloading part of your communication to other places on the internet will probably just increase the problem, because now you have to check multiple sources.
The really nice thing about e-mail is that you don’t have to respond instantly. You don’t have to find a time at which you and your correspondent are both available. Instead you can both use times that are convenient for you. If you have something that requires immediate attention, by all means, use the phone! E-mail isn’t very reliable in that case anyway.

Of course e-mail is not the be-all-end-all of communication. There are other means that are better suited in different situations. However, they all require your attention and they will all break your working flow if you don’t have the discipline (or option) to not constantly (try to) engage in this communication.

Where were you? :wink:

On emails, that is true considering big enterprises which employees actually receive hundreds of emails - or, non-company addresses which are subject to spam. But, in small companies with internal addresses on internal servers and therefore reasonably shielded from spam, and/or clients (can you say gmail?) with good spam filters, email can be a very valuable instrument of productivity. On the other hand, if you don’t check your email often yuo can miss urgent information/things to do. Ok, there’s always the phone, but imagine having a coworker (in another office) who’s absolutely unable to convey a concept in spoken words without straying 100 miles west of the subject… then written email is your salvation :slight_smile:

If you still press your “receive email” button you need to update your software.

I rarely send emails. They are to easily misinterpreted, especially in a discussion.

Now you have all the problems of email, but scattered in different places.

I’m going to mail a link to this article to everyone in my team.

[Shameless but relevant plug]


This is exactly part of the problem we are trying to solve at Inbox2. Email applications have not seen any innovation at all in the last 20 years (except maybe for GMail who stirred things up a little bit). We are trying to change that.

The first step that we have taken is to create an activity stream around all your incoming email data. This allows you to filter our specific “persons” (regardless of which email account/social network they are sending you messages from).

The second step which we are working on now is to be able to priorotize “persons” during specific time periods “co-workers are more important during office-hours but a whole lot less important after office hours”.

The third step (but this will take a while though) we will be moving towards is adding intelligence in your email app, but I won’t talk to much about this just yet :slight_smile:

There are plugins and methodologies that allow you to add this to for instance Outlook/Gmail, etc. The only problem is, these are aftertoughts. Inbox2 builds these concepts in from the scratch (its a whole new email platform).

Check it out if you think it sounds interesting

  • Waseem

Welcome back. But I cannot see the problem with email.

I don’t spend my time continously checking for new emails, I have notification do that for me - yet your suggesting turning that off. I find twitter far more of a distraction, yet you recommend this as part of the answer. (If twitter is an answer, it must have been a stupid question.) You talk about the importance of maintaing work flow, and avoiding multitasking, yet advocate making phone calls requiring immediate attention.

It seems to me that email is the ideal solution to most of these problems, in that it allows you to control, when and what you respond to, as is appropriate to your current circumstances.

And the rat experiment doesn’t really apply, as even if you check your email at fixed intervals, you won’t receive a fixed reward. It’s still just as much of a gamble.

Great stuff, man. This is SO important if one want to be more productive.

Here’s what more you can do with email to be more productive:

  • don’t check your email first thing in the morning
  • turn off email notifications
  • setup email rules
  • shut off your email for a couple of hours
  • keep emails simple and to the point

Your first points call to mind MMOs as well.

In general I agree with Jeff, but a strong counter-argument is searchability. I keep all important emails for later reference. If a conversation happened on a forum, then it’s comparatively invisible to later searching.

It’s just self-control really, isn’t it? You could swap ‘checking email’ for ‘surfing bbc news’ or ‘checking facebook quick’ or ‘making another cuppa’… there’s lots of ways to procrastinate.