Solve your email checking problem once and for all

February 27, 2017

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.

Most email messages can wait.

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.

There’s a threshold where checking email transforms from a required discipline to a mindless urge.

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.”

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 a 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.

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

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.

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