I Want to Check Email Less. Can You Help?

Check EmailThe last several weeks have been some of my busiest writing weeks ever, coupled with way more travel than I normally do. This is not a complaint; it has all been really cool opportunities.

A side benefit of this flurry is that it has forced me to hone my productivity and focus skills. I simply haven’t had the time to fool around. It’s also gotten me to take stock of the habits I have that are time-fritterers. At the top of this list is checking email.

I just love checking email, and have ever since I popped in my first AOL CD-Rom and set up my first email address. That was 22 years ago—time to develop quite a compulsion to see what new thing may have arrived in my inbox. It’s like Christmas every day, many times a day. Many, many, many times a day. (I haven’t stopped to count how many times I check email on a typical day yet; I should, because a few well-placed numbers can really help demystify a mental habit. Let me get back you on that one.)

On top of that, while I was working on one of these writing projects, my research led me to a study that found that checking email only three times a day provided as much stress relief as learning and practicing a relaxation technique. And that those people who did cut down their emailing still sent as many emails as they normally did—but they spent 20% less time on it. And the final piece of insight was that the people who checked email less were just as or more likely to get raises! More relaxation, more free time, more money—what’s not to love about any of that?

Here are some things I’ve learned and used in the last couple months that have helped me curb my email-checking:

  • Don’t keep your email program open. Just close the window and turn off any notifications if you have those set up. This is one of those “so simple it works beautifully” things, but it only goes so far. I find that after I’ve written approximately 2-1/2 sentences, I start craving a “break” and wanting to go open my email back up and just see what’s come in.
  • Enlist the help of technology. I’ve been using the SelfControl app, which is free, and which you can use on your computer, to block access from certain websites (including gmail) for a certain amount of time. So far I’ve worked up to 45 minutes with a pretty high level of comfort. I’m using it right now, in fact! (It’s also helpful for challenging yourself to get something done in a discrete amount of time—I am hoping to finish this newsletter in 30 minutes so that’s how long I set the SelfControl timer for.)
  • Set better expectations. Cal Newport wrote about this in Deep Work: He suggests putting a disclaimer on the contact page of your website—and I suppose you could create an autoresponder with it too—that explains that you generally take 48 hours to respond to emails, and that you only respond to the ones that are a good match of your current priorities. It helps alleviate not only other people’s expectations, but any guilt you might have about needing to be “on top” of your inbox.
  • Put your phone on airplane mode, so that it isn’t constantly dinging to tell you new email has arrived. It’s probably best to tell people who may legitimately need your fast response, like your partner, that you’re doing this.

So, those are my tips. But I would truly love to hear yours, because I still need more help, particularly around the times I check email that are not during typical work hours.

I think it’s completely reasonable to check quickly at 7:30 to make sure there’s nothing pressing for that day (1), then at 9:30 after I’ve had a chance to prioritize what I’m going to be working on that day (2), then either just before or just after lunch (3), then just before I meet back up with the kids (4), then once after the kids go to bed but at least an hour before I hit the hay (5). Five times a day. That seems completely doable and reasonable, doesn’t it?

To share your ideas—or simply regale us with a story about how you’ve stopping checking email all the time—leave a comment below. I’ll try not to read them as soon as they come in. =)

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