I am a very high entropy person

I sometimes describe myself as a high entropy person. My natural state is one of disorganization and absentmindedness.  When I was a kid, my room was always a complete mess. I did poorly in school because I was always missing homework assignments. While procrastination was a factor in this as well, the fact that I had homework often just wafted out of my head almost as soon as I left the classroom (to the disappointment and disbelief of my much more organized parents).

So when my colleagues at work occasionally make jokes about how organized I am, it causes a bit of cognitive dissonance. If I seem organized, it’s because of the systems and practices I’ve developed to overcome my natural state of disorganization.

Every task goes into my task management system because if it doesn’t, its chances of getting completed are miserably low. I keep the number of emails in my inbox at or near zero because if I didn’t there would be hundreds (same for unread items in my RSS reader). My desk at work is clean and organized because if it wasn’t you wouldn’t even be able to see the desktop.

In short, the reason I’m writing a “productivity” blog is because this kind of thing does not come easy to me. I think that’s important to be forthright about for honesty’s sake, and because I’m sure there are more folks like me out there. If you are, know that you’re not the only one who struggles with this stuff.

The Never Ending Battle: Fighting Email Distractions

If I got a ding every time I got a new email, I’d go insane. So whenever I get a new device or try a new email program, the first thing I do is turn off the audible alert it makes when I get a new email. If I didn’t, every email would be at least a momentary interruption as my mind registers the ding. What’s more, it makes the arrival of each new email a moment of temptation; a chance for me to get off task and into my mail app checking on whatever new email arrived.

Apple has made going this route a little easier with it’s VIP feature. I’ve set it to alert me when I get an email from someone on my VIP list, so only emails from the most important people are an interruption. Importantly, I’ve been able to keep my VIP list short and the people on it are not ones who are emailing me constantly.

For many years now I’ve run my devices with the email ding turned off, but I still had the rest of the notifications options turned on. Oddly enough it wasn’t the more obvious notifications like the lock screen notifications or the banners that pop up when a new email arrives that made me realize this was still a problem, it was that badge on the app icon with the number of unread emails. Every time I was on the home screen of one of my iOS devices, that little red circle tempted me to just pop over to my email app and see what was in there.

I went ahead and turned off the app icon badges (and all other non-VIP notifications). While I was at it I turned off badges for all of my home screen apps except for Due, OmniFocus, Messages, and Drafts. In addition to helping with distraction this also increased the visibility and importance of alerts for those apps. When the red badge indicating tasks that are due soon in OmniFocus is one among many on my home screen it blends into the background. When it’s the only one it really stands out.

After I turned off the notifications on my personal devices it got me thinking about my work PC. Initially I was just going to turn off the desktop alert that popped up for new email, but I got to thinking about a couple of things:

  • I do my best, most productive work in the morning, particularly when it comes to technical tasks or high quality writing that requires intense concentration.
  • I seldom receive any email so urgent it couldn’t wait until after lunch.

So I’m trying an experiment: Outlook gets turned off before I go home at night and it doesn’t come back on until after lunch the next day.

So far I haven’t had any irate colleagues coming up to me and complaining I didn’t respond to their email fast enough (thankfully, the email culture at my workplace is not one that requires immediate responses).

I have run into a couple of issues though: Outlook is both an email app and a calendaring app. This means that I can’t open it up to look at my calendar at the beginning of the day without also catching a glimpse of my email. Now I do think my willpower is strong enough that I could keep myself from reading any email when I’m in there, but sometimes even seeing the sender and subject line can distract me into thinking about the email when I’m trying to spend my most productive time on another task. So I’m trying to develop the habit of checking my calendar in the morning on one of my iOS devices, where I have separate email and calendar apps (currently the excellent Timepage).

The other issue is that sometimes the task that I’m working on in the morning requires me to send mail and there’s no good way to do it without firing up Outlook and seeing my mailbox. This has me wishing for an email client that would allow you to send mail, but not read it.1

One way or another email has been an issue for me for a long time: Checking it too often, letting it build up in my inbox, allowing particular messages that I need to do something with (usually something unpleasant) to sit there and fester. I hope that the measures I’ve taken recently will help me make some progress, but I’ve got no illusions that these represent any sort of final victory. It’s a never ending battle.


  1. And also wishing for the flexibility to use a desktop email client other than outlook with our locked down email system, but that’s a different subject.