Cure your e-mail addiction

I ran across an image yesterday on 43folders that I wanted to share with you:

If you check your e-mail every 5 minutes when you’re at work, then you are checking it 12 times an hour. Multiply 12 times an hour by 8 hours a work day, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year (assuming you aren’t checking your e-mail while you’re on your two weeks of vacation) and this is how Merlin determined the 24,000 total.

If you’re checking your e-mail 24,000 times a year, what are you sacrificing? What are you not working on during that time? Could you reduce your rate to every 15 minutes (a yearly total of 8,000) and be more productive with other aspects of your job? Could you reduce it to once an hour (2,000)? Three times a day (750)?

How often are you checking e-mail currently? If you don’t know, track your productivity to see how you’re really spending your time at work.

How can you break an e-mail addiction? Start by turning off your notification indicator and setting an alarm for every 15 minutes. Only check your e-mail when the alarm indicates you do so. Every client I’ve worked with has found that they will not face any trouble at work if they only check e-mail on a 15-minute or 30-minute schedule. Most come to find that once an hour is sufficient, but it takes awhile for them to build up confidence to make this change. I try to check my e-mail fewer than 5 times a day (some days I’m more successful than others).

What will you do with your newly discovered time? Simply taking the time to plan your perfect day will help you manage your time more wisely.

31 Comments for “Cure your e-mail addiction”

  1. posted by Barbara [email protected] on

    Awesome point to limit time spent peeking at fresh e-mails. My husband learned to restrict e-mail answering to only a couple times per day in a time management for managers class he took. If it applies at work, it applies for WAHMs too!

  2. posted by Anita on

    Again with the assumption that email is an unproductive time-waster…

    As I and a few others have commented on previous posts, not everyone makes the same use of email. In every single office I have worked in, email IS used to communicate time-sensitive information. Of course there is email that can wait or be deleted immediately; there is also email that I have to answer within 10 minutes or I will have my boss or a client follow it up with a call or a visit to my office demanding an answer. When you get a message from the boss to the tune of “I have a meeting with Client X in 20 minutes; please pull together the following Y documents”, and you only check your email every 30 minutes… you might end up leaving a less than stellar impression. And yes, I do get such requests quite regularly.

    … also: if you look at your watch every 5 minutes during work hours, you will have looked at your watch 24,000 times in a year. Gasp! The many things I could have accomplished in those few seconds! Point is: it’s not the number of times you check your email, it’s how efficiently you deal with it based on the requirements of your work!

  3. posted by darrylparker on

    I think you could add Facebook and Twitter to addictive communication “checking”. Constantly going to the inbox, whatever the source, is a major productivity killer. It ironically provides the feeling of getting something done when little actually gets accomplished.

  4. posted by ktpupp on

    Or you could, you know, only check your email when you get a new message notification. That feature exists in most email clients for a reason!

  5. posted by Erin Doland on

    @ktpupp — It’s okay to rely on the notification indicator only if you receive fewer than 20 e-mails a day (that comes out to checking your e-mail about twice an hour). If you receive about 100 e-mails a day (which I’ve found to be fairly common for many business people), then you’re averaging roughly 1 e-mail every 5 minutes and you’re back to checking your e-mail 24,000 times a year.

    For someone like me who receives 350-500 e-mails per day, I would do nothing but check e-mail all day if I relied on the notification indicator.

    Your system of relying on the notification system only works if you’re not regularly communicating by e-mail.

  6. posted by eva on

    “Checking” email seems rather old-fashioned–I don’t go to the email, the email comes to me. My mobile device is set to push, I use Firefox with Gmail Notifier, and even Outlook has a notification setting. There’s really no need to ever go to your email to “check” it. Come on, Unclutterer, get with the times!

    Now, this won’t stop you from wasting time by switching gears every time you receive a new message (unsubscribing from unnecessary listservs and using filters properly will help with that), but that’s a different skill to learn.

  7. posted by Lori Paximadis on

    Different people use e-mail differently, and one-size-fits-all isn’t always a good solution. My situation is more like Anita’s, in that critical and time-sensitive information about current and future projects flies back and forth via e-mail all day long many days. There is no way I would consider setting the automatic e-mail checker for any less often than every 15 minutes. I would have missed out on a couple of plum projects that came across my desk this year if I hadn’t been able to respond immediately and say I was available.

    But I’ve spent some time configuring my e-mail program (Apple’s built-in Mail) to work for and with me, rather than against me, with all kinds of filters and folders. Discussion list messages, commercial messages I’ve elected to receive, mail from certain senders, and other noncritical categories of mail are automatically sorted out of the inbox and into special folders where I can deal with the messages at my convenience. Thus less stuff ends up in my inbox, and it’s very easy to scan to see if it’s anything that needs to be dealt with right away or not.

    I’m not sure that I buy the idea that you save much time by checking e-mail less frequently. Sure, there’s a little gear-switching time involved if you act like Pavlov’s dogs and drop what you’re doing when the mail indicator goes off (I don’t), but you still have to deal with the same number of messages. Whether you scan 10 messages every 15 minutes or 80 every two hours, it’s still the same amount of stuff to deal with.

  8. posted by Miles Free on

    The graphic makes a good point, bbut as others have said, some of us are professionals whose job is to respond to those emails when a client has a process down etc. A much better topic might be how to compartmentalize those nonessential emails using different accounts, so that one’s primary account doesn’t become un cluttered.

  9. posted by Cure your e-mail addiction | Productivity Hacks on

    […] Cure your e-mail addiction […]

  10. posted by infmom on

    My husband’s work email gets sent to his Blackberry, which alerts him every time something comes in.

    He’s out of the office a lot and some of the emails are notices generated by various pieces of equipment, so he does need the mobile access… but looking at the stupid Blackberry every time it chirps… arrrrgh.

  11. posted by sjwilde on

    I’ve realized that I use checking email as a procrastination device, to put off doing a substantial task that I’m not quite in the mood for yet. Realizing this helps me do it less often. Maybe I just need to close the lid of the laptop when I’m not using the computer to keep me from constantly checking

  12. posted by matt on

    @anita not sure why you’re so angry. at my office we have phones and when things are urgent they call me. If you stop responding to emails right away and train people to call you when things are urgent, you’ll get a lot more done. trust me.

  13. posted by supersocco on

    that means i probably check email >50,000 times/year.

  14. posted by Virginia on

    Where I work, email should be non-urgent. If I need someone to look at an email ASAP, I IM them to let them know of the message and that I need a reply. I expect the same back from my business partners. Urgency for me is desk phone, cell phone/pager, or IM. Email is the regular business to prioritize and get done. If someone sends me a message that they feel I didn’t respond to quickly enough for their tastes I tell them to IM for immediate response. My VM message says that too. And I am one that gets over 150 respondable (re: not junk/spam) emails a day and work in an on-call production support environment – so every thing is urgent to someone.

  15. posted by Viv on

    I prefer to not be bothered by phone calls unless it is urgent. I use email instead because I can manage it better. I like the little bubble that shows part of the email without actually checking it. That way, I can glance at it as it loads and decide whether I should interrupt what I am doing.

  16. posted by jhamdan on

    sjwilde – I like your thinking!!

  17. posted by Turning the Internet Off? on

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  18. posted by Anita on

    @Matt: good luck “training” your supervisors to approach you the way you’d like! 🙂

    Not sure how long people on this blog have been out of the corporate world, but evidently it’s long enough to be out of touch with the way things work in bigger offices, where one’s ability to influence the way people work or communicate is directly proportional to one’s place in the corporate hierarchy. Unless you cater solely to people at the manager level and up, this sort of advice is more likely to cause friction and have negative repercussions on the lower-level employees who try it than to increase their productivity. There have been several comments to this effect on similar previous posts, yet they have constantly and consistently been ignored.

    Also: like Viv, I prefer to be contacted by email, because it forces people to *think* about their request and articulate it properly in writing. I have a few colleagues who prefer to call me; then they “um” and “er” for 5 minutes trying to tell me what they are looking for, and usually I end up asking them to send me an email stating exactly what they are trying to get from me.

  19. posted by magellings on

    It’s difficult to break the habit of checking email so often. Start by turning off all notifications (i.e. the little email icon in your notification area, popups from Outlook, etc.). And then “close” your email client.

    My typical work day is 9-6pm. I check email at 11AM and 3PM. I find that most problems get resolved by the same person that asks them. So you save time not only “not” checking email but also “not” resolving problems that can be easily resolved by the asking person with a bit more of their effort.

    I started checking email “three” times a day and have since moved to “twice” a day. It’s hard, but breaking the habit lets one accomplish a lot of other work.

  20. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Anita — Unclutterer (a staff of 6) is a media outlet owned by a mid-size tech company. We are, by no means, out of the corporate world. Just to clear up that confusion.

    Additionally, not all businesses are filled with inflexible supervisors or narcissistic managers who believe that their employees are serfs. You can change jobs and work for a different company. You can also start working with the HR department to change the rigid corporate culture where you work. If you dislike “checking e-mail” as being your career, you have the power to change it.

    Now, if you like “checking e-mail” as your job description, then feel welcome to ignore this post completely. The purpose of this post was to help people who feel as if they are wasting time constantly checking e-mail. If you like it, then don’t worry about it.

  21. posted by Courtney on

    Hi! I bet the complainers are in the same boat as I am:

    I’m a network security administrator. Some of our systems have “tripwires” that send me an email if they’re set off. Getting a notification would mean someone did something they shouldn’t, or a system is down, or something else happened that needs to be responded to IMMEDIATELY. Waiting 15 minutes to “check” on that notification could literally cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

    For those emergency emails, set up a RULE. In Microsoft Outlook, you can click Tools –> Rules and Alerts. Set a rule for your urgent emails (you can do it based on words in the subject or body, by sender, etc). Then create an action that happens when that rule gets hit. I recommend playing a loud sound, but you can also start up an application like a big “ALERT! ALERT!” document. With the help of your telephone guy, you can also have it ring your cell phone.

    You can set up these alerts for emails from your boss or someone else who demands instant gratification.

    Then go ahead and check your email on your own schedule, whether it’s 15 minutes or a longer period of time, peaceful in the fact that you’re on top of things. Tada!

  22. posted by Dave namenotreallyrequired on

    Better yet, set up filters so that low priority emails get piled up and dealt with once or twice daily.

    Yeah, 15 minutes is often enough.

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  24. posted by Tanupriya on

    Very true….fantabulous article on time-management..

    Now here I am, the best in time-management, you see….I check my emails just twice a day…

    lolz 😉

  25. posted by ktpupp on

    Erin, I almost feel like your comment was somewhat condescending… Since you assume I must get fewer than 20 email messages a day then I am not a professional? I will assume I am reading too much into that comment, however, and give you the benefit of the doubt.

    I work for a software dev company, we rely on email all day long, hundreds is not unusual. But with Outlook, the notifier pops up in the corner of the screen with the sender/subject. I can ignore the “Coffee cake in the break room” messages, or those that are simply sales stats, etc. But things that need attention can be viewed and responded to immediately, if needed.

    It’s much more efficient, to me and many others I know who work this way, to use the notifiers rather than just randomly switching over to Outlook to see what has come in.

  26. posted by Diane on

    Re: Erins post to @Anita…

    “…Additionally, not all businesses are filled with inflexible supervisors or narcissistic managers who believe that their employees are serfs. {No – but many are.}
    You can change jobs and work for a different company. {When was the last time you looked for a new job? And in this, economic environment?}
    You can also start working with the HR department to change the rigid corporate culture where you work…”
    {Sorry – that is the wrong approach – once HR is involved, and if it’s between you and your boss, typically, the boss wins. Not always, but the majority of the time.}
    Overall – it is unfortunate, but in today’s corporate work environment this bad behavior is probably more the norm, rather than the exception. Layoffs and cuts, have reduced the number of workers, but not always the amount of work, that needs to be done.
    In addition, the option to “change jobs and work for a different company” is not always available – the last statistic I heard was there are 6 people looking for work, for every 1 job open….so even IF one could find an alternate job that matches skills, education, location, interests, etc. – getting a great boss, while not impossible, is especially difficult to find, never mind figuring them out, before, accepting the job…So yes, there may be some great, wonderful working situations, but they are rather few, and more rare today, than they have been in the past…

  27. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Diane — I am well aware of the realities of this economy. However, there is a point where abuse at work is not worth the paycheck. Often times, it is more damaging on other aspects of your life to be employed by a tyrant than it is to be without the income from a job for awhile. Life is a series of choices, and all choices come with consequences — even choices that seem like great, positive ones. Accepting a promotion at work can mean more time away from your family, moving to a new city can mean saying goodbye to a dear group of friends, and quitting a job where the stress was taking off years of your life can mean you have to live with less for a bit. Thankfully, unclutterers usually have smaller dwellings, live within their means by being smart consumers, and focus on what matters most to them.

  28. posted by Jamie Martin - Professional Organizer on

    This is a very interesting discussion. I see a few key highlights.

    1. Checking email less often should increase your productivity by reducing the mental jumping back and forth between priorities. Even quickly reviewing the subject bubble can send your mind in another direction. (Obvious exception would be those whose jobs are in support, etc.)

    2. Using filters is essential. Most people don’t even know they exist let along know how to use them.

    3. I agree that not responding to each email as it comes in forces people to be self-sufficient and problem solve for themselves. I see the opposite from Anita regarding clear, well-thought out email communication. I feel email is too easy to slap together and copy the whole office. Why think for yourself when you can just email someone else?

    Our standards of communication via email are too low! There is no clear subject, required action, background information and next steps in most emails. And if one had to photo copy a memo (for those who remember those days) and walk it around to each person’s desk, you might reconsider copying so many people.

    4. Companies need to invest some time in training employees on managing email, i.e. how and why to file them, turn them into tasks and appointments, and establish company-wide email communication standards by which all employs are expected to follow. This issue has been ignored long enough by corporations.

    @Erin – Amen to life being a series of choices, living within our means and focusing on what’s important.

    I left corporate American on purpose and established a new life for myself!

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