Start Page: Tips to reduce email notification distraction

April 8, 2015

WilsonLove it or hate it, email is here to stay. With electronic filing, more of our practice becomes electronic every day. You know the drill: your office computer dings with a notification of a new email, usually when you were getting focused on an important project. The next second, your phone buzzes with the same notification. In this article, I will show you how to eliminate unnecessary email notifications to reduce how much email distracts you in your practice and your life. The goal is to help you create a notification system that works for you, not against you.

Turn off (general) email notifications

I know what you are thinking: I can’t turn off my email notifications, I’ll miss an important email from a client/boss/spouse! I know this is a bit counterintuitive, but the idea is to eliminate the general notifications and allow only specific notifications that you actually want and need to see.

In Outlook 2013, navigate to “File” | “Options” | “Mail.” Scroll down until you see the “Message arrival” options. You can adjust settings such as turning off the sound when a new email arrives or turning off the desktop notification that occurs with each new email. If you are nervous about quitting notifications cold turkey, just turn off one of the notification options and try that for a week. Once you follow the tips in this article, you will start to feel comfortable that your system is working, informing you of only the most important emails.

On your smartphone, navigate to the settings application and disable the notifications for new emails. Mac and iPhone users can designate certain contacts as VIPs and control notifications for emails received from designated VIPs.

Choose your VIPs

You can designate a VIP for the most important people or even email threads in your life. Setting VIP notifications still allows interruption to your day, but generally these are interruptions you want (or need) to allow.

On your iPhone, open the Mail app. Tap on an email from a contact you want to designate as a VIP. Click on the name in the “From:” field. On the next screen, you will see the phrase “Add to VIP.” Tap “Add to VIP” and you will see a star next to the sender’s email address.

Now, tap the “< Mailboxes” area of your Mail App (top left hand corner). You should see “All Inboxes” and then a list of your email accounts. At the bottom of that list, you will see “* VIP.” You can tap the blue circled “i” to see who you have designated as a VIP, add additional VIPs, and set VIP alerts (we’ll deal with that next).

Go back to the Mailbox list and tap on “VIP.” Now, you should only see emails from your VIPs. This mailbox is a filtered list of your most important emails, only allowing emails from people you designate as a VIP. Tap “< Mailboxes” and return to “All Inboxes.” Any emails from a VIP will have a star next to their name. Any changes should sync between your Mac and other iDevices (iPhone/iPad).

Turn on (specific) notifications

Designating VIPs in Outlook requires a workaround (or “hack” if you want to be cool). In Outlook, click on an email from someone you want to make a VIP. Then, create a new rule.

In the box that appears, you will see options for delivery notifications for when an email meets the selected conditions. Select the criteria you want. Then, choose to play a new sound/notification when the message meets that criteria. Repeat this process for each VIP you want to receive notifications from in the future. Or, build your VIP list as you go.

Back to your iPhone, adjust your notification settings so that only notifications from your VIPs are allowed. Open “Settings” | “Notifications” | “Mail.” From there, you can set up notifications for each account on your device. Open the “VIP” account and adjust the settings to your preference. VIP settings will override all the other settings of the other accounts.

Another benefit to the Mac ecosystem (iPhone/iPad) is that you can receive notifications on a specific email thread. Tap on the “Flag” button and choose “Notify me.” This will give your phone permission to notify you when anyone replies to that email thread.

With the coming of more wearable tech (Apple Watch anyone?), managing notifications and disruptions to your day is more important than ever. Take a few minutes to set up your notification system to suit your preferences.

Have a tech-related question? Tweet @sethwil or use #askILstartpage with your question and Seth will try to answer it in a future article.


Seth Wilson is a partner at Hume Smith Geddes Green & Simmons LLP in Indianapolis. In addition to practicing law, he writes at sethrwilson.com, helps manage technology operations of the firm and frequently speaks and advises on legal technology issues. The opinions expressed are those of the author.


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