Several readers have recently pointed me toward a productivity tool called Inbox Pause, which allows you to prevent messages from arriving in your email inbox for a set amount of time. You could, of course, simply decide not to check your inbox for this period, but as every knowledge worker who has ever used email has learned, it can be very, very difficult to resist a quick check when you know there are messages piling up, desperate for your response.
I like this tool. Among other benefits, it can provide a nice support system for time block planning. When you start a block that doesn’t require email, you can setup a pause to make sure you’re not tempted to abandon whatever demanding activity you’ve planned to instead fall back into the comfort of stupefying inbox sifting.
Pausing on its own, however, cannot fully solve the problem of communication overload. As I argue in my book, A World Without Email, the foundation of our overload is a widely-adopted collaboration style that I call the hyperactive hive mind. This is an approach in which work is coordinated with a series of ad hoc, on demand, unscheduled, back-and-forth messages — be them emails, instant messages, or texts (the actual technology doesn’t really matter).
Each ongoing back-and-forth conversation of this type can generate dozens of messages in a short period of time. Given dozens of these conversations unfolding concurrently, you can easily confront a hundred or more messages a day, many of which require a relatively quick response, as they’re part of an extended back-and-forth that presumably cannot be dragged out too long.
In this context, there is only so many pauses you can take, as every time you step away, you’re potentially delaying many different back-and-forth discussions, perhaps critically, and ensuring an even more intimidating, tottering pile of urgency awaiting you when the pause completes.
What’s the ultimate solution? An inbox reset. As I detail in my book, you need to start enumerating every type of conversation that’s unfolding over email (or IM, or text), and ask for each, is there a process, or tool, or set of new rules, that would allow us to get this work done in the future without trading multiple unscheduled messages?
To be clear: these resets are a pain. They require you to work with others to come up with more structured ways of collaborating. It would be easier if we could instead deploy hacks or tips all on our own. But in the context of knowledge work, despite what we’ve been told, productivity isn’t personal, it’s instead systematic, and must be addressed collectively.
In the meantime, however, we must do what we can to survive the onslaught of the hyperactive hive mind. Taking a pause on a regular basis is a good start.