Do me a favor. The next time you’re typing or reading something on your computer, reach up with your right hand and tap yourself on your left shoulder. Be gentle but persistent. Now imagine that it’s not you doing it, but rather someone standing behind you. Now do it again. Now do the right shoulder—that’s someone else. Now the left shoulder again. Pretty annoying to imagine, right? How could you ever concentrate if this is the environment you worked in?

Unfortunately, this is the environment you work in—only it’s not a physical person tapping you on your shoulder; it’s your email program.

By default, popular desktop email clients like Microsoft Outlook display alerts every single time an email hits your inbox. If you are like most people, you leave your email program open all day as you work. Therefore, while you’re attempting to actually do work, your email program is tapping you on the shoulder constantly. Do you respond by looking?

Such distractions erode your productivity by an enormous degree considering that many people get boatloads of email on a daily basis. They’re also mini stressors that can really accumulate throughout the day.

If you want to be productive and run those annoying people tapping you on the shoulder out of the room, you need to turn off those automatic alerts. Virtually all email programs give you options for receiving email alerts.

For example, in Outlook 2003, the setting is buried under Tools > Options > Preferences tab > Email options button > Advanced email options button. Uncheck everything under “When new items arrive in my inbox.” You’ll no longer hear those dreadful piano key notes or see a balloon pop up in your task bar every single time an email arrives.

If you use some other email program, I would encourage to find the email alert settings in it as well. Everyone should experience the zen of being free from shoulder tapping. Yes, email can and should wait.

What tips do you have for taking control of your email? I’d like to hear about them.