“Shut off inbox notifications.”
“Only check email once in the morning and once in the afternoon – no more, no less.”
“Set an ‘out of office’ response to let people know you’re focusing on work and not checking email.”
Email management advice like this is commonly espoused by work and career experts who warn that the inbox is the ultimate productivity-killer. And it’s true: One of modern business’s most ubiquitous tools has become one of its greatest drawbacks. To focus, we need to limit our time in email jail each day.
What productivity experts don’t share is that the distracting power of email goes much deeper than merely interrupting our workflow. In fact, your digital habits connect to psychological factors happening outside your awareness.
What Your Email Habit Is Telling You
When you experience a trigger – say a ding alerting you of a new message in your inbox – perhaps your knee-jerk reaction is to immediately respond. You turn to your phone or laptop and start tapping away.
Having responded, you experience a small rush of satisfaction. You feel productive, and you wouldn’t mind feeling that way more often. But before you know it, you find yourself in a cycle of checking and responding to email alerts at all hours: during family time, at dinner with friends, while walking through an intersection. You may have noticed it’s become an impulse that’s difficult to control.
This type of response is a form of “implicit cognition,” unconscious patterns that influence how we behave — and it’s the reason why it’s so hard not to check your inbox. It happens when, over time, your thought process fades into the background. Now it seems automatic, but in reality there’s complex communication between your brain, body, and nervous system happening without you being aware.
With checking and responding to email, what begins as a decision you make consciously soon turns into automatically hitting “refresh” on your inbox without even thinking about it. When implicit cognition kicks in, we check emails impulsively without thought, often when we know we should be working on something more important.
While it may feel good to respond to late-night emails initially, it can quickly take a toll on your relationships, time, and overall happiness if you let it become a habit. That quick hit of enjoyment, though not beneficial in the long run, trumps common sense. Because we mistakenly conflate the satisfaction of responding to email with productivity, we do it more until we find its ingrained in our daily routine.
A Mindful Approach to Email: 3 Questions to Ask
You can re-train your brain to be more mindful and intentional in the way you use email, which I teach more about in REWIRE, a program designed to help people build healthier habits and a better relationship with technology. As with other negative patterns, it starts with asking yourself a few key questions to uncover the underlying reasons why you’re compelled to fall down the email rabbit hole so often.
1. “Is this the best use of my time?”
What were you working on right before you fell victim to your inbox? Email is the great distractor, so use this question to check in and see if the impulse to check your messages is derailing your attention during a productive streak.
Many emails can quickly be read, responded to with a simple “yes” or “no,” or filed for later. A good rule of thumb: if the action can be completed within 5 minutes, get it done right now . Save longer periods of uninterrupted time for getting meaningful, high-impact work done.
2. “Why do I feel like I need to check email right now?”
When you notice yourself getting involved with your email, shift to a more mindful, conscious approach before proceeding. What else is going on while you move to refresh your inbox? Are you feeling lonely, bored, or afraid of being judged as lazy if you don’t respond quickly? Once you’ve uncovered the root of the impulse, look for a healthier way to satisfy the emotional or physical need you’ve identified.
In her book Better Than Before, happiness expert Gretchen Rubin, suggests creating a menu of “treats” — small pleasures or indulgences that serve as productive outlets for stress. Rubin points out that more often than not healthy treats don’t involve sitting in front a screen, rather they are actions, people, or things that reinvigorate you. A few examples would be playing with your dog for 20 minutes, buying yourself nice herbal tea, going to a yoga class, therapeutically doodling in an adult coloring book, or organizing your desk (because if you’re a neat freak like me, you actually find that relaxing).
3. “What goal am I trying to accomplish?”
There’s a reason why many of the world’s most successful avoid checking email first thing in the morning. It’s because as Brendon Burchard, personal development expert and author of The Charge says, “The inbox is nothing but a convenient organizing system for other people’s agendas.” If you’re not careful, you can get lost in busywork, simply reacting to other people’s demands without creating time to accomplish your most important projects and priorities.
To steer clear of this trap, set a specific intention or reason for opening your inbox (ie. “Send my boss documents to review for the 1 pm meeting”, “Find and print flight information”). Defining what you want to achieve before you dive into email keeps you focused. It interrupts the cycle of implicit cognition that would typically lead you to stayed mired in your inbox. Instead you remain in control of your behavior, which frees you up to get in and out of your inbox, and move on to items of greater significance.
Another good strategy to keep your email habits in check is to flip the equation and think about what you’re missing out on when you do check it. As humans, we are motivated more by losses than by gains, so knowing the important to-dos you’re sacrificing by staying mired in email can help you shift into action and re-prioritize to work on things that really matter. If you’re like most of us, you have trouble getting through all the items on your to-do list in a day, but by considering which ones take priority, your net loss is lower.
Most of us aren’t aware of the extent to which we sacrifice our attention to our inbox. We feel unfocused, yet don’t realize how our mindless, automatic email checking habits contribute to fatigue and burnout. Asking yourself these questions can help identify whether your email habits are leading you to success or holding back your productivity. Armed with this information, you have the power to ignore the dings and pings and take back control of your inbox.