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The Secret Skills of Master Teachers: Batching Busy (or Shallow) Work for the Sake of Deep Work

By Dave Stuart Jr.

“We got to the moon and built the pyramids without email and Facebook. You can go a couple of hours without checking them.”
— Eric Barker, Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong

I get a lot of email, as I'm sure you do, and 2018 has only seen the volume increase. There are parents and coworkers in my school inbox, friends and family in my personal inbox, and dear colleagues and customers from around the world in my blog inbox. And this isn't counting other forms of correspondence, like text messages and Twitter and Facebook. We can get back to those in a minute, but first let's talk about email.

Email is tricky for a few reasons:

  • In many cases, there are humans behind emails — people with dignity and worth. Despite appearance, emails aren't just chunks of data on a screen. They're (often, but not always) messages made by humans. Oftentimes, these messages are written in hopes of a response.
  • On the other hand, emails are often — but not always — cheap. They're easy and quick to make. If a person types 70 words a minute, it takes ten minutes to write a 700 word email. That's a long one — probably longer than this blog post will end up being. With practically no extra effort, that email of 700 words can be sent to 100 people instead of one. And so we tend to get many more emails than we do earnest messages.
  • Treated instinctively, emails are omnipresent. Where there is an Internet connection, there is the potential for email. Smartphones come with email apps already installed. So email is always there, always promising us dopamine if we open the app and find a new message, always offering us a chance to “get caught up” by pulling out our devices and getting a few emails answered. Our instincts will always lead us to too much email time.
  • Email, despite its humanity and its omnipresence, doesn't produce expertise or mastery. That's the point most relevant to today's post.

Perhaps 99.5% of our emails are what the eminently productive (and work-life balancing) Georgetown professor Cal Newport would define as “shallow work.” This isn't to say that email is bad — honestly, I love corresponding with people — it's just that it's not super great from a long-term perspective. Many of our emails need to be done, but they're unlikely to produce long-term value or help us solve the problems that we're wrestling with. To put it in teacherspeak, emails aren't where we get to the bottom of what kinds of things promote the long-term flourishing of our students.

(More on long-term flourishing in Chapter 1 of These 6 Things — download it free here.)

To put it another way, then, email is busy work — it's always got something for us to do. And yet, it won't give us the kinds of breakthroughs that sustained, hard work will.

The thing, then, is to make sure that we keep email within confines. Here are some rules I'm finding helpful in 2018 for getting me better and healthier with my inboxes.

  • OHIO — only handle it once. For the longest time, I was an addict to pulling out my phone and checking my email. But I almost never responded to emails on my phone because it's cumbersome and I like to write in complete sentences. So then I just deleted the mail app from my phone. This makes OHIO a lot easier.
  • No email on my phone. I know I just said this, but some of you are skimming this article, and I don't want you to miss it. This has significantly improved my enjoyment of my home and family.
  • Unsubscribe from frequent “Don't Reads.” I'm comfortable with, some days, just not having time to read an email newsletter I'm subscribed to. But if I'm auto-archiving that same newsletter four, five, six times in a row, chances are I'd be better off just unsubscribing. One less decision to make.
  • Batch it. I schedule two or three 20-minute chunks per day, and during those two or three sessions, I'm intensely focused.

That last bit — batching — is a skill that I suspect most master teachers have. So, it's one I'd like to further develop. And that's the point of today's post.


P.S. A few other things re: correspondence:

  • For Facebook, I have an auto-responder set up when someone messages me that says, “Hi. I'm bad at Facebook. To get in touch…” This way, I don't need to check my Facebook messages.
  • For Twitter, I check 1-2x per day — just my notifications. I respond or retweet immediately. I sometimes also look at the tweets of Elon Musk. Otherwise, I don't use Twitter much.
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