How I Learned to Check Email Less (Finally!)

check email less

Checking your email seems like such a productive thing to do, doesn’t it? It means you’re staying on top of things, being responsive, and dealing with things as they arise so that they don’t pile up.

Or does it?

If all those things were the only truth about checking email frequently, then why, on the days you stay on top of your email like a too-tight toupee, is it also true that you feel exhausted and like you got nothing done at the end of the day?

I know that email is an important and integral part of our lives. But it is also a big potential source of stress as well as a powerful distraction from working on the things that truly matter. It’s also a sneaky opportunity for your ego to run the show, because your ego is always going to be interested in finding out Who needs me right now?

That’s a big reason why checking email constantly feels important in the moment but doesn’t provide any real gratification after you’ve done it—your ego is a real trickster and, honestly, kind of a turd. The more you do what your ego wants you to do, generally the worse you feel about yourself and the less progress you make on the things that matter to you. And the more you learn to at least question the urges that come from your ego (if not outright ignore them) the more fulfilled and happier you’ll be.

Researchers have also found that checking email less produces as much of the benefits and good feelings as practicing relaxation techniques. And if you fear that if you don’t check email that often you’ll create more work for yourself later, you’ll also be happy to learn that study participants who agreed to check their email only three times a day spent 20% less time managing their email. That’s probably because when you stop what you’re doing to go pop in to your inbox, you slow down your cognitive abilities because it is taxing to the mind to switch between tasks. So checking email less makes you less stressed AND more efficient. How about that?!

I’ve been wanting to check email less for quite some time now. Well, two weeks ago, I got my wish. First, our dear dog knocked a glass of water on to my laptop keyboard and fried that sucker. Then, we traveled to Los Angeles for a spring vacation and, oddly, had no cell reception in the apartment where we stayed. And then the internet went down. I took it as a giant sign to lay off the email, already! Ha. And it worked.

For the last two weeks, I’ve been checking email four times a day:

  • In the morning, but not first thing. Waiting until after you’ve sat down at your desk and hopefully at least decided what you’re working on first (if not actually working on that thing). You can respond to the things that are truly urgent (as in, concerning something that’s happening that day) or that only require a sentence, but save the meatier things for later.
  • Just before you break for lunch—this is a good time to respond to anything that requires more thought.
  • In the mid-afternoon when your energy is naturally tanking, taking your attention along with it. (It’s a good use of that state.)
  • Right before you shut down for the day, just to make sure there’s nothing you need to know that will inform your morning the next day.

To help yourself do this:

  • Close your email inbox when you’re not in it. Shut. It. Down!
  • Turn off notifications.
  • Resist the urge to check your email on your phone just because you’re somewhere where you’re forced to wait—doctor’s offices, kid’s classes, school pick-up line. Instead, enjoy some time to read, bring your laptop and work on something important (I have written many, many things while waiting for karate, or kung fu, or art to be over), or go take a walk and/or call a friend you’ve been meaning to catch up with. View that downtime as a precious gift and you will be less likely to fritter it away waiting for your new emails to load.
  • If you need a little more help refraining from checking your email during the day and you use a web-based email client (like Gmail), you can get the Self Control app on your computer and block your access to the website of your email account for a specified amount of time.

I’ve got a few more tips in this blog post from this time last year (hmmm….what is it about spring that makes me think about checking email less? Just a general sense of busyness that’s amping up in preparation for the slower summer months?)

And I am happy to report that I absolutely feel that 20% reduction in stress levels! And I have not felt that I have dropped any balls (despite the few times that my ego has tried to tell me that I have—it was an illusion). If I, with my admittedly large addiction to checking my email, can do it, I know you can too.

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