Pushing for lost attention

I no longer have email push email notifications turned on my phone.

Nor do I don’t have have my phone pull emails at set intervals. Why? Productivity and stress reduction.

The biggest problem with having your phone push email every time a new message comes in is that you feel compelled to check it. Making email work for us isn’t about checking email; it’s about processing email. Much of the email that I receive can’t be quickly processed on a mobile phone.

If I can’t process the email, what good does it do to check it and have it sitting on my mind? When we allow email to fester on our minds, it causes needless stress. We think about the contents of that email and a job we have to do, but we aren’t actually working on doing that job, so it steals our attention, even as we try to relax after a long workday.

Everything in our lives suffers from stolen attention. So why have email pushed to you when you don’t intend on actually processing those emails once and for all?

Many of us read and email but don’t act on that email, leaving us less apt to process the email later. We have only served to acquire that  brief satisfaction of checking an email, only to allow stress and lost attention overtake us during all the moments we don’t process that email.

People use the unread designation that emails have as a sort of productivity heuristic. If the email hasn’t been opened and read, it should be acted on. Once opened and read, it doesn’t need to be acted on. But that’s a lie.

This isn’t to say that push notifications don’t have their place. Rather, for most people, the decision to use push notifications should be done on a case by case, project by project, job by job basis. This week, push notifications come in handy, due to the nature of the work I’ll be doing.

I’m at The Intel International Science & Engineering Fair, the world’s largest international pre-college science competition. I’m expected to responsive to email constantly and help run the event. It makes sense to use push or pull notifications this week.

I’ll be much less focused on producing something original and more focused on helping keep this science fair running well. This is a push email kind of week.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to email. When I’m back in the office next week, I don’t want my phone buzzing with email constantly. I’ll be back focused on Web work, social media and writing. Those activities are best done with some level of concentration.

In many situations, checking email is a good way to not get work done. I’m not checking email as I write this post, and I don’t have an email application open or push notifications on. I want to focus on writing this post, and at 9:30 on a Saturday night, there is no chance that I’ll receive an urgent email (usually I don’t write blog posts on Saturday nights, but I’m working this weekend and all of next week, and this is what I’m doing for some down time).

Part of making email work as part of a modern, usable workflow is taming it. Unless you’re a traffic manager or some other office job that has you managing the flow of projects or doing constant deals, you don’t need email open all the time.

I can’t get lost in programming if I’m being notified about emails. I can’t think clearly enough to write while I’m being bombarded by email. Multitasking is overrated, and constantly being connected to email is even more overrated.

Imagine if your email inbox was actually the mail you received in the post office. All day long there would be a knock at the door and a new letter. You’re sitting down to dive into a long work session and all of the sudden a new letter shows up. You check it and then try to go back to work again.

And then another letter shows up.

When Sparrow came out for the iPhone, I thought it was a great app that a had a fatal flaw — it doesn’t support push or pulling of email. Now I realize that as part of my workflow, this is an asset. I check Sparrow only when I have time to process email.

I do, however wish that Sparrow supported push emails, because there are times like this week that I do need to able to receive emails in real time. I hope Sparrow does eventually support push email, because it’s a feature that when used properl can come in handy.

But for most of the time, I’d have push turned off. Ideally checking email when I’m bored neither cures my boredom, nor makes me actually tackle my email.

In the end, what we really need are easier ways to turn push notifications on and off. There isn’t a global way to turn push notifications on and off in iOS. We’re left with a laborious process where we have to turn on and off notifications on a per app basis. This makes it very unlikely that people will actually turn push notifications off when they’re trying to focus.

Push notifications have a purpose. We cannot deny that. But we need better control on when they are interrupting us or not.

This is an issue that is still being worked out in mobile OSes, and something that has to be addressed. It also has to be easy to do, because this cannot just be the domain of power users.