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Positive Procrastination: The Later Box

January 18, 2011

There’s a famous line in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina about families: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. If Leo were writing on a PC in 2011, he might have said the same about e-mail. I can think of at least 50 kinds of unpleasant e-mails, everything from forty flavors of spam to the unsettling “I’d like to see you in my office.”

One kind of unpleasant e-mail is a particular drain on workplace happiness and productivity. It’s the one that requires a very carefully worded reply. These e-mails happen all the time. Sometimes it’s a complaint from a disgruntled customer. Sometimes it’s a co-worker trying to pull you into a meeting you’d rather not attend. In themselves, the e-mails aren’t so bad. The problem is the dread associated with the reply, a dread so insidious that it can sap time and energy from your day.

The trick, like so many workplace solutions, is avoidance. Just avoid dealing with the e-mail. Not forever, but long enough to get on with the rest of your day. Try this avoidance system: the Later Box.

Create a folder (or a Topic tag in Postbox) specifically for those e-mails requiring careful replies. When you read an e-mail that makes that little voice in your head say “man, I don’t want to deal with this,” stick it in the folder and get on with your day. You’ll need a block of time to revisit your Later Box when you have the stomach crank through your replies.

When and how you “process” these depends on your temperament. Some people can dispatch them first thing in the morning and begin the day with the satisfaction of knowing they’ve already tackled the toughest task of the day. For others, commute time on a train, bus or ferry is the perfect no-man’s land to spend half-an-hour in reply mode. But any way you do it, getting these e-mails out of your head for a few hours is one of the few productive kinds of procrastination.

Posted by Sherman Dickman