Solve your email checking problem once and for all

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Do you have the ten­den­cy to check your email inbox too often? Do you get moments of anx­i­ety when you haven’t checked for a while, and feel you should be check­ing right now?

I some­times feel the urge to check email a few times through­out the day. When my inbox is clear, I’m relaxed and men­tal­ly avail­able. So if I can guar­an­tee noth­ing is wait­ing for me, I feel less stressed out by giv­ing the ol’ inbox a quick refresh.

The dark side of checking email

There IS a dark side to check­ing email. When I have new items wait­ing for me to process, I feel a weight of anx­i­ety.

I tell myself, peo­ple are expect­ing a time­ly reply. I must take care of this, pron­to! I tell myself I am pre­vent­ing them from get­ting their work done. I want to respond quick­ly, but I want to get done what I’ve already planned for the day.

Have you ever had an email that sud­den­ly takes over your whole day? This could have been pre­vent­ed if you didn’t check your email. That might seem sil­ly or obvi­ous, but it’s true. Most email mes­sages can wait.

[share­able cite=“Josh Mitchell”]Most email mes­sages can wait.[/shareable]

If you explain to some­one, “I had an appointment!”—most rea­son­able peo­ple will under­stand. (I sug­gest refer­ring to all your sched­uled tasks as appoint­ments.) Test this and report back to me.

I’ve cre­at­ed a strat­e­gy to help myself. Instead of feel­ing OVERWHELM when a new mes­sage comes my way, I’ve devel­oped a process to alle­vi­ate stress, yet stay on top of email.

Reshape your view

I’m not a chemist, but I do know the body wants dopamine, so you “check email” hop­ing to get the “new mes­sage” reward. (That’s the excite­ment you feel when a text pops up or noti­fi­ca­tion flash­es in front of you.)

Check­ing email can seem like a pro­duc­tive task nec­es­sary to get work done. But there’s a thresh­old where check­ing email trans­forms from a required dis­ci­pline to a mind­less urge.

[share­able cite=“Josh Mitchell”]There’s a thresh­old where check­ing email trans­forms from a required dis­ci­pline to a mind­less urge.[/shareable]

My definition of mindless urge

I define an urge as any task you mind­less­ly repeat expect­ing to feel sat­is­fied. Usu­al­ly, you obtain this feel­ing, so you repeat the task hop­ing to get your reward again. Email falls into this cat­e­go­ry. There’s not much “think­ing” going on, except “I must do this!!

If you suf­fer from the urge to check email when you don’t need to, iden­ti­fy that you’ve devel­oped an unhealthy habit.

Why we feel the NEED to check email so much

We check email because it sat­is­fies our desire to please oth­ers and prove our respon­si­bil­i­ty. We are search­ing for:

  • The desire to respond fast
  • The desire to feel wanted/needed
  • The desire to do a good job and impress oth­ers

If you want to solve this mind­less, pro­duc­tiv­i­ty-wreck­ing ten­den­cy, look clos­er at these desires.

They’re great aspi­ra­tions, but mea­sured with short-term cri­te­ria. Think about how much you can accom­plish in 6 months or a year. (Can I sug­gest 3 years?) Think about how much you can impress some­one over the course a month, rather than a day.

Realign your mind­set to focus on big pic­ture goals, not tedious, short-term focused “email goals.”

[share­able cite=“Josh Mitchell”]Realign your mind­set to focus on big pic­ture goals, not tedious, short-term focused email goals.[/shareable]

Trusted system

To move on to big­ger goals, you need to have a trust­ed email pro­cess­ing sys­tem—or—a sys­tem you fol­low to process email.

Process email? What’s that.

Pro­cess­ing email means you take a step back and think before you do any­thing. When I’m liv­ing in my inbox, my default mode is to hit the reply but­ton and ‘get to work.’ But this is where the stress comes in. I get tan­gled in a wave of unplanned work, which frus­trates me, and dis­rupts my work­flow.

If you’re liv­ing in your inbox, there’s a bet­ter way. Remem­ber­ing to process first will alle­vi­ate work­flow issues.

Schedule an email-processing block

It’s bet­ter to sched­ule a spe­cif­ic hour and place when you will process email, rather than check­ing ran­dom­ly through­out the day.

David Allen, intro­duced the idea of pro­cess­ing an inbox in the 2001 pub­li­ca­tion of his book, Get­ting Things Done. Basi­cal­ly, you take a look at every item in your in-tray (email inbox or phys­i­cal bas­ket at your desk), and ask, does this require action?

  1. If you can com­plete the action in 2 min­utes or less, you do it imme­di­ate­ly. (You may have heard dif­fer­ent vari­a­tion of this method. David Allen invent­ed it.)
  2. If the action requires more than 2 min­utes of work (like most of my email), you add an “action item” to your task man­age­ment soft­ware (some­thing you trust and review dai­ly like Asana, Base­camp, Nozbe, Omni­Fo­cus, or Todoist). You take care of that email lat­er when you’re men­tal­ly avail­able to do work.

The key to solving your checking email urge is to OWN the fact you’re not checking it.

I’ve come up with a few promis­es I think about when I have the urge to check email. See if you res­onate with any of these.

I am not checking email right now because...

  • Spend­ing time with fam­i­ly is more pre­cious to me.
  • I’m doing deep work, which is the best use of my time.
  • I will be more objec­tive when I process every­thing lat­er.
  • I’m eat­ing lunch and val­ue down­time.
  • I need to sleep, and sleep is the key to bet­ter per­for­mance and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty.
  • What­ev­er it is can wait. It always can.
  • I’ve set up the expec­ta­tions that I don’t always reply right away, but will with­in the next 6 hours (or what­ev­er works for you).
  • I do not need the “NEW” flag to tell me what to do.
  • Email does not con­trol my life.

[share­able cite=“Josh Mitchell”]The key to solv­ing your check­ing email urge is to OWN the fact you’re not check­ing it.[/shareable]

Conclusion, or, “but it feels good to get email done!”

Yes! I agree! Like dai­ly meals, email will be back tomor­row, no mat­ter what. If you’re swamped in mes­sages to process right now, don’t wor­ry, there will be more tomor­row. Guar­an­teed. I sug­gest you take care of the most impor­tant items, and move every­thing to an archive fold­er. Only keep action-items in your Inbox. Google “Inbox Zero” to learn more about this.

It feels great when you’ve checked all your mes­sages and you know no one is wait­ing to hear from you. You can have that same “mind-like-water” state, by com­mit­ting to a bet­ter email strat­e­gy. This will give you a more relaxed evening, week­end, and life—with time to think and be.

[reminder]Do you have the urge to check email too much? How do you deal with it?[/reminder]

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