How to Take Your Life Back from Email

Email isn’t emails. Let’s be clear about that. If email was just a list of bits of information, we probably wouldn’t spend the amount of time that we do on it. The lead designer of Gmail once said, “Your inbox is a to-do list that others have made for you.” Your Inbox is the list of everything in your life that other people think should be a priority for you. Some will overlap with your actual priorities — the things you’re passionate about, the things you’ll be glad you accomplished a month from now, not an hour from now — but many of them are the things that other people would like you to prioritize.

You should care about doing email well not for the sake of doing email well but for the sake of doing everything else in your life well. The effect of task switching on real productivity — accomplishing things of real value and experiencing flow — is unbelievably big. Forget the time it takes to read and respond to emails, it’s the toll that switching tasks takes on your concentration that really hurts. After switching from priority work to checking email, it takes people an average of 23 minutes to get back into the heart of their work. That means that if you’re checking your email every half hour or so, you have just 15 minutes every hour where you’re really truly doing your best work. So if you have something that should take one hour of concentrated effort, it’ll expand to take four hours. It sounds ridiculous but think about how many times you’ve quickly checked email, responded to a few, remembered something “important” you had to do and 15 minutes later when you’re back to your real work, you struggle to motivate yourself to get back into it.

Imagine if you could make the majority of an hour productive. You’d accomplish the things you truly care about with greater depth and focus, be able to spend more time on them, and free yourself up to do other things that make you happy but get pushed out of your schedule because you’re too busy with “more important things” — going for a walk, calling a friend to catch up, cooking dinner, going to the gym.

Good news! It’s possible. Here’s how.

Decide to check your email only X times per day. For me that number is four, and I’ve never missed an opportunity or made someone angry in doing so. Each time I check my email I only respond to things that are important or can be dealt with in under two minutes. Once a day or every other day I respond to emails that take more time, but during that time I turn email into a focus rather than a distraction. Once a week I go through everything that remains and just deal with it, whatever it takes, to get it out of my Inbox.

Since your Inbox is a to do list, you should treat it as such. If there are thousands of emails in your Inbox, each time you enter your Inbox to deal with emails it will be an overwhelming experience with no end. Start by archiving or deleting the thousands of emails that are currently in your Inbox. Now the list of emails in your Inbox consists solely of the things you actually have to deal with. Marking as “unread” becomes unnecessary when you stay on top of your Inbox. My goal is always to get to the point where there are zero messages in my Inbox once a week. In another post, I’ll talk about useful tools that help make this a realistic goal.

Turn off notifications on your phone. Getting email notifications on your phone is like saying to the thousands of unimportant people who have your email address: “feel free to interrupt me with absolutely anything at any time, no problem.” Maybe you can “ignore” unimportant things but 1. Our minds have finite processing power. Little things still take up space and 2. It means you don’t get to set your priorities. Maybe you can deal with an email quickly, but now something that wasn’t a priority before has become a priority because someone else decided it should be.

Set expectations for the people who email you. This sort of happens automatically when you start doing the other things I’ve mentioned but you should also give it conscious thought. Part of what makes us feel that we must respond right away is our sense that other people expect us to do so. You never signed up to be on call 20/7 so stop acting like it! When you generally respond to emails within half an hour of receiving them, people will expect that and think something of it when you don’t do so. If something is urgent, the people who are real priorities will text or call you. For everyone else, you need to start changing their expectation of an instantaneous response. Most things are not so urgent they can’t wait four hours. If people know that you’ll respond to important emails within the day rather than within the hour, you’ll start feeling a lot less pressure to respond right away.

Be intentional about when you check your email. Leave a one hour buffer on either side of sleep. Don’t check your email first thing when you wake up. Doing so lets other people decide what will be on your mind as you start your day and set the tone for your day. If you force yourself to wait an hour before checking your email your mind will have the chance to calibrate and set your real priorities for the day. Then when you check your email an hour into the day, you are in charge of deciding the priority that those pieces of information receive and how they fit into your existing priorities. Don’t check your email right before you go to sleep. Same idea: you don’t want to let other people decide what you’re thinking about as you lie in bed and process your day. The other checks during the day will vary a lot by person and schedule but you just want to make sure to space them realistically so that you can stick to the X times you’ve set for yourself.

Send emails whenever you want. You can realistically send an email without checking your Inbox. Sending emails is okay because it means that you’re still in charge of your priorities. If you need to send an email to accomplish your most important work then you should definitely do so. In another post I'll show you how to create a bookmark that opens a tab containing just an email composition box.

But what about when you’re bored and you just want to check for fun? If you pull out your phone to check email during the five minutes you're waiting for someone to meet you, you're essentially saying, "I don't have anything worth thinking about during this time, let me see what someone else thinks I should be thinking about." Those "dull" moments are the ones when, if left open, you'll think of a great idea or an interesting observation or an appreciation of the smallest detail. Those moments are far too precious to give away to anyone who happens to want them.

A lot of people will read this and say, well that’s nice but it could never work for me. I’m too busy. I get too many urgent emails. I don’t really lose anything by checking my email. Some variation on the ideas above can work for everyone from a freshman in college to a busy CEO. If you decide to commit to these practices you’ll find yourself more efficient, more productive and happier.

In another post I’ll talk about some very practical tools and services you can use to make your email workflow less stressful and more efficient.