Odds are, if you’re reading this, you’ve probably checked your email a few times today. And I have a couple of questions for you:
- Why are you checking your email?
- What’s in there that will really make a difference in what you’re doing for the day?
Take a second to think about your answers. If you say “I don’t know,” keep reading. If you have a good answer to either question, keep reading.
While I’ve got you thinking about email, I’d like you to think about checking email. I’ll say this in very clear terms: the only time you should check email is when you’re anticipating receiving a message that answers some specific question that is relevant to the task at hand. Hold onto that thought while I answer an objection that just popped up for a lot of people:
“But email is the way my employer communicates about what work needs to be done!”
If you’re in a work environment where people use email to change what you should be doing for the next few hours, then you’re in a different situation; do what you can to change this practice, though. It’s hard to focus on any given task when you know there really might be a message in your inbox that would change what you ought to be working on. The psychic RAM being taken up by this fear and uncertainty has serious negative effects on collective productivity; everyone watches their inboxes and has to read redundant or unnecessary messages to make sure that there wasn’t a priority change in those messages, and all that watching, waiting, and reading comes at the cost of the work that actually needs to be done.
I think that’s where a lot of our problems with email originate, and unfortunately we perpetuate that problem in our own habits. So let’s move beyond “checking email” to “processing email.”
Checking Email Is Different Than Processing Email
What’s the difference? It all boils down to “beginning with the end in mind.” When you check email in the way that most people check email, you’re inviting yourself to jump on the Infinite Loop of Technological Distractions: a message in your inbox causes you to go to a website, that website sends you to another, you want to check in on Twitter, and on you go, until you’ve finally forgotten why you’re where you are in the first place. When you finally get your wits about you, you return to your inbox — probably to find more stuff in there, and the cycle begins anew.
Note that when you check email in the way that I described before this section, you’re less likely to start the Loop. You’re looking for a specific message that answers a specific question for a specific purpose. If that message is not there, then you can get back to whatever you were doing. If it is, then it allows you to move that project along.
When you process email, the intention is not to see what’s in there — it’s to get stuff out of your inbox. Normally I say that email isn’t the work you do, but in the case of processing email, it is the work you’re doing.
This is where thinking about email messages as objects comes in handy: the only messages that should send you running around the Web are the Jumbos (emails that require some thought and research to even process), but if you’re just processing email, you don’t necessarily have to get everything out of your inbox. Despite what the Inbox Zero fans may say, it’s enough to know that everything in your inbox requires action and that you know, roughly, what actions they require. Yes, it would be better if you could get your inbox to zero, but you may find it easier to schedule a time to get it processed and then schedule another time to act on the individual messages, rather than trying to “clear out” each message you read.
One last thing: you probably noticed that I say “email messages” more than I say “email.” I do this to reinforce the fact that “email” consists of discrete messages that need to be acted on. I have found that people are far more likely to actually do the email correspondence they need to do when they see it as “writing 7 emails [translate: email messages]” rather than “clear their inbox.” Likewise, it’s easier to see that answering 5 email messages a day will keep your inbox clear, rather than thinking in terms of “keeping my inbox clear.”
So when I say “stop checking your email,” I’m not saying “abandon it.” I’m saying that it’s more effective to plan when you’re going to process email messages than it is to get lost for an hour because you’re checking email. (Tweet this.)
Looking for more tips, tools, and insights to help you find peace with your inbox? Check out our Email Management Tips resource page.
Naomi Niles says
Um, wow. This is timely. This is one of the main reasons I’ve been thinking about contacting you. My email is out of control.
What happens though when a lot of your customer service depends on it? My clients are used to getting very timely responses (within working hours) and I keep my voicemail on most of the time. So, I’m afraid to process my inbox less for that reason.
E-mail, the procrastinators crack. I indulge in it to much myself, it’s not the e-mail that’s bad it the distractions. I know when I don’t want to something, I check my e-mail…perfect excuse. I’m currently in rehab for it…getting better every day.
Jared Goralnick says
Stop checking email? Yeah, I think I’ve heard that expression before ; ). Glad to see you’re giving the idea some attention. And I can’t wait to be in touch with you when the next round of AwayFind does some neat things that relate to what you’re talking about here. In the mean time, keep on sharing these great ideas!
I’ve been working on this, and I’ve gotten pretty good at closing my inbox tab when I’m trying to focus, and only checking email a couple times per day.
The next thing I’m bumping up against is that I feel stressed by having a lot of emails in my inbox, I feel like they’re business or social to-do items, and I don’t feel “caught up” unless I clear my inbox once a week. And like you said, that makes me reactive instead of proactive. Now instead of checking my email out of habit and piddling time away, I’m processing my email mindfully to reduce my stress level. It’s an improvement, but I wonder if there’s a next step.
Do you have any advice for dealing with this sort of inbox stress?
Beth Dargis says
Great distinctions between checking and processing email. Today I plan on processing email at: 11:00, 2:00, 3:30, 6:45.
Catherine Cantieri, Sorted says
“The psychic RAM being taken up by this fear and uncertainty has serious negative effects on collective productivity”
OMG, yes. Absolutely. I used to have a manager who expected everyone to receive, read and act on her emails within microseconds of her sending them. Meetings were only announced over email, and we were never given more than 10 minutes’ notice. Frankly, there *was* no collective productivity there.
The distinction you draw between email and messages is a crucial one, and I think it’s key to getting out of the email Loop. Great post, Charlie!
J.D. Meier says
I like your distinction on checking vs. processing. I keep a zero inbox, but I do that through effective processing and only checking morning, noon, and end of day … and I never start my day with email (I’m a fan of drive or be driven.)
.-= J.D. Meier´s last blog ..Passion, Profit, and Value =-.
@Naomi: I wanted to share a bit of what I said in my email to you with everyone. As I said there, an unintended consequence of having Very Timely Responses is that it begins a relationship that may be more counterproductive in the long run. Your clients expect a quick response, so they may change their communication patterns such that you’re now both in the situation in which you’re checking email waiting for the other to reply or seeing if the other hasn’t sent you something. Fundamentally, though, email correspondence isn’t really the meaningful work for either one of you, yet it’s how you’re actually spending your time.
I’ll be writing more about this very soon.
@Nick: I think the problem with email is that it the habit works below the level of cognition. I hope to post about this later today, so maybe it’ll make more sense.
@Jared: I’ve been waiting to hear about the new AwayFind, Jared. And thanks for the encouragement – I have a lot more in the pipes about email.
Yes, I do. After writing this post, I realized I have a lot more to say, but briefly – there’s way too much value put on an empty Inbox. We confuse being clear about what we need to do with having an empty Inbox, when in fact it’s easy to separate the two.
Let me ask it this way: if you had to choose between doing a few Really Important Tasks/Projects and having a clear Inbox, which would you choose?
What if it turns out that our relationship to email is such that, though we would choose Really Important Stuff every time, in the moment, we subordinate Really Important Stuff to having a clear Inbox?
So, yeah, I’ve got more coming.
@Beth: I’m curious – why those times?
@Catherine: I’ve been in those organizations. I’ve also been in an organization that did the same thing via phone or radio. Both had the same effect: we spent more time waiting for the call than doing what we were supposed to be doing.
Thanks for your feedback about email and messages – sometimes I worry that I’m too big of a stickler for people to stand, but in practice there is a difference.
@J.D: You’re on it, man! Generally, I process it late morning, after lunch, and towards the end of the day, although here recently I’ve been checking it more as things have been in flux. Yet I’ve still noted how little difference it makes to what I’m doing – so I’m going back to processing it less frequently.
Beth Dargis says
I know these times seem a little wacky: 11:00, 2:00, 3:30, 6:45. That’s because I woke up an hour late.
Normally it’s 10:00 after getting important writing done. 1:00 after lunch. 3:30 because that’s right before I quit for the day. And 7:00 for personal email.
.-= Beth Dargis´s last blog ..Seeing with New Eyes or Boggle Anyone? =-.
@Charlie: I’ve tried choosing a few Really Important Tasks/Projects and letting my inbox just accumulate, but I’ve found that my stress level builds up to unmanageable levels if I do that. Whenever I look at my inbox, I feel like each one represents someone expecting something of me, a friend I’m letting down, an obligation I’ve committed to that I’m reneging on, or a deadline I’m running late on. I know that some of this is “just in my head” and that others’ expectations of me are usually less than my expectations of myself, but I haven’t yet figured out how to manage my stress levels.
So I bow to King Inbox and pay him homage, and he rewards me with the gift of inner peace. (:
.-= Pace´s last blog ..How I overcame my fear of running out of money =-.
easy to say, but some of us have jobs where email is the main way people reach us. I am a college professor and most of my students contact me ONLY be email. And at all hours of the day/night. They assume I am on a lot and my school encourages that attitude. So can I get by with checking email twice a day? Sure – if I want to get fired, I could.
Perhaps people can stop making others feel guilty about the way they handle technology — how about this as a mantra? Do what works for you and some of you — stop preaching at the rest of us who handle technology differently! Wow, what a concept – live and let life.
@kat: I see this post triggered a few of your frustrations, especially since your objections don’t address the content or intentions of this post.
Let’s take a look at this.
I asked: “What’s in there that will really make a difference to what you’re doing for the day?”
In your case, something in there really might change what you’re doing for the day. A student might need to drop by; one of your peers may want to drop by and chat for a bit; one of your guest speakers needs to bail and you need to plan to cover for them. All good things to know as they come up.
If your job is customer service – which seems to be the expectations of you, your students, and your institution- then to be effective is to provide timely customer service. There may be more efficient ways to be effective in your case, but if your “job” really is to check email…then check away, presuming you want to keep your job.
Also, this post was about how we think about the process of checking email. I’m recommending moving beyond random checking so that you can be in the driver’s seat of your time and attention; if you’re intentionally looking for information at times you determine rather than apprehensively and reactively seeing what’s in there, you’re not really “checking email.”
“Do what works for you” is one of my guiding principles and is what I help my clients and readers do, so I find it a bit odd that you’re in disagreement with me. Perhaps the deeper frustration is that what you’re “required” to do really isn’t working for you? I don’t know enough about your situation to say, but again, something was triggered here. I also find it interesting that your conclusions are “live and let live” and “stop preaching!,” yet your tone and content seems to be counter to those very suggestions.
It was not my intention to make anyone feel guilty or “to preach” – although if doing so made someone pause, just for a second, and helped her think about what’s working for her and what’s not, I’m fine with that. So I guess I’ll end with this: I may have been the target of your frustration, but was I the source of your frustration?
p.s. I’ve taught college courses. I’m a coach. Our realities are not that different. I’m open to start over and try again. How about you?
Jason Cohen says
It’s true: Closing your email client is one of the easiest, best ways to immediately become more productive.
As for the case of working in an environment where receiving timely emails is important: Use multiple accounts OR use filters to separate sources that are typically timely from everything else. Surely you can check personal email much less frequently, for example. Or you need email from your boss quickly but from co-workers less quickly. Or you need email from a key group of 5 people involved with your project.
.-= Jason Cohen´s last blog ..90-minute podcast on creative marketing =-.
Laura at the Journal of Cultural Conversation says
Hey Charlie – just found this post and, yes, I am an email/Twitter/web addict. I get sucked into the vortex and often can’t get out! I like your point about processing messages…I’m definitely going to have to take some of this advice to organize myself better. Thank you!
.-= Laura at the Journal of Cultural Conversation´s last blog ..Reflections Of A Road Warrior =-.
I found your site through your guest post on Sonia who I found on twitter. (convoluted but hey ho that’s the internet a bunch of treasure hunts)
Anyway-I wanted to say that the constant emailing checking is distracting. It does help to give yourself a set amount of times a day to check with a set timer for making you stop. (kind of a flylady technique: http://www.flylady.net )
Thanks for an intersting post and interesting website.
Saleem Rana says
Yes, I’m as guilty as everyone else of periodically checking my email throughout the day. I think I’m using it as some kind of stress relief. While I’ve told myself to just do it morning, noon, and night, I have not been true to my intention. I’ve got to make the shift from “checking” to “processing.”
Rob Leonardo says
I’m guilty! I’ve been trying to check my email every now and then hoping to find the next new subscriber! Oh what a waste of time to refresh my email three times in one occasion! This hit me straight!
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