Never Check Your Email First Thing in the Morning (Regardless of Your Time Zone)

This advice comes from Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek. The bit about the time zone is my little contribution.

This is great advice, but Ferriss doesn’t explain why. You can figure it out in context, but you might not have the book. And some things aren’t there. So here’s my explanation.

1. For many of us, email is a black hole. Once you get in, it’s hard to get out. We know this happens. So we might be starting our day with email just to avoid the really important and productive stuff. Don’t let this happen.

2. If you check your email first thing in the morning, you’re liable to spend more time messaging than you would later in the day, since it may feel like you have more time for email before the day really gets cranking.

3. The impulse to check email first thing every morning is a good indicator of an unhealthy addiction. If you feel like you simply must check your mail, then you have less discipline in your life than you need if you want to be productive.

4. Checking your email early clutters your mind with other people’s business when you want to devote your best hours to your own business. Before you open your mail, you don’t know what’s in there waiting for you. Why take the chance that it will bear tidings of new responsibilities?

5. By deliberately waiting to check your email, you train yourself to estimate more accurately the importance and urgency of email in your life. The bane of email is that it is too convenient and it creates an artificial sense of urgency. Postponing your email fix helps you experience the freedom from email that comes when you realize that very little of it is urgent. If you think it’s urgent, you may feel its bidding during all hours of the day, regardless of how often you check. And checking first thing in the morning feeds that sense of urgency.

6. Checking email first thing may encourage poor email management. Suppose you adopt the policy that you will never leave a message you’ve read in your inbox. Great idea. But to follow through on that policy, you have to have a message management system. The simplest of systems has three bins or folders, one for the archives, one for follow-up tasks, and one for holding items while you wait on someone else to complete a task. The rest can be deleted. So every message that’s opened is immediately handled in one of five ways: (1) it’s trashed, (2) it’s answered, (3) it’s archived, (4) it’s tucked into a follow-up folder, or (5) it’s moved to a folder awaiting someone else’s action. The FOLLOW-UP and WAIT bins will have to be monitored. So you’ll probably want to keep track of them in your task management system. Staying organized this way takes a little extra effort. If you don’t want to tie up your morning with these kinds of activities, and you just want to open your mail to see what’s in there, you will end up doing one of two things, practicing your management protocol when you should be doing something more productive, or leaving read messages in the inbox to be tended to later.

7. It may turn out that simply waiting a few hours to check mail allows just enough time for many messages to become stale. If a message has gone stale, because the urgency of the moment when it was sent has evaporated, then you have one less message to deal with.

And now a word about time zones. I live in California, where it’s three hours later than in the east. So by the time my day starts, other people in my communication loop have already had three hours to post messages. So I might think I owe it to them to jump into my mailbox right away to see if that’s the case. But I owe it to myself not to do this.

I’d like to know about your email headaches, and strategies for getting relief. So please post your comments. Just don’t expect me to reply first thing in the morning.

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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

6 Responses to Never Check Your Email First Thing in the Morning (Regardless of Your Time Zone)

  1. Rachel says:

    I’ve been wondering how I can lose 5 HOURS every morning and this is exactly what is happening to me. I’m addicted to email and it is derailing my day! I love the idea of not checking it first thing in the morning. Thank you for sharing!

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  2. Pingback: At Your Service Cincinnati, Ltd. » Blog Archive » Take a break and improve productivity!

  3. douggeivett says:

    Mike,

    I’ll be interested in hearing how it goes.

    -Doug

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  4. Mike Austin says:

    Good thoughts, Doug. After posting my comments, it struck me that 4 times per day is too much for Dr. Pepper and email. I’ll give the abbreviated Dr. Pepper strategy a shot…10 and 4.

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  5. douggeivett says:

    Mike,

    “The Dr. Pepper Strategy.” I like that. Dr. Pepper has always been one of my favorite soft drinks. But four Peppers a day is even more than I could handle.

    Same goes for e-mail. I suggest turning off the ping that alerts you to incoming mail and check your mail no more than two times per day. You can batch your own outgoing mail so that you send mail during scheduled log-ons. Because of the pace of my day, I log on about 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. each day. Try this for a week or so, and see if it works for you. You might even try slimming down to once a day, then once a week, then . . . .

    After all, Christmas comes around only once a year.

    By the way, you’ve got me feeling nostalgic. When I was a kid, my grandfather had a service station in Claremont, California. Some summers I worked for him pumping gas, washing windshields, and checking oil. (I think I was about 10 the first time.) And break times were for visits to the pop machine he had on the premises. Dr. Pepper was my usual choice.

    -Doug

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  6. Mike Austin says:

    One particular problem for me is when I’m expecting a response from a publisher or journal about some project of mine that they are considering. Email then becomes like Christmas morning, as I want to check over and over, hoping for good news.

    In general, my strategy for dealing with this and with the black hole of email in general is what I call “The Dr. Pepper Strategy”. Yes, it’s goofy sounding, but it works. When I was a kid, my grandfather had a pop bottle machine in his shop. The old-fashioned Dr. Pepper bottles had the numbers 10, 12, 2, and 4 on them, suggesting that you have one at each of those times during your work day. While that’s a bad idea, it helps me to check email at those intervals.

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