Ask Unclutterer: To check or not check email first thing at work?

Reader James submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I’ve read productivity books and articles that claim checking email first thing at work is a bad idea. I have been burned by not checking it because my boss and clients sent me important messages overnight and I didn’t get them until two hours later. What is your take on checking email? Is my overall productivity worth the times I’ve been burned?

I can see the reasoning behind not checking your email right when you get to work — you run the risk of getting caught up in work that might not be extremely important to your job responsibilities at a time when you’re likely at your most focused and productive. It would be better if you could use your best brain power on your most demanding and core work.

That being said, I check my email first thing when I get into work. I don’t really address it, though, I simply scan all the “from” and “subject” lines to search for work-altering messages. If I don’t see any indicators that someone sent me an email that will change my most demanding and core work, I immediately close my mail program and wait until I need a break from my demanding work around 10:00 a.m.

If I click on a message, read it, and discover it didn’t affect my immediate work day, I mark the message as “unread” so it can hang out until I process email in a couple hours.

If I click on a message, read it, and discover it does affect my immediate work, I’ll process the email the same way I do when I’m really handling email. This means I’ll file it as Archived, add related next actions to my to-do list, and/or schedule any related information on my calendar. If I need to reply to the email, I do it at this time. After giving proper attention to the email, I’ll scan the rest of the inbox to see if there is anything else I must check. If I’m done with my quick search, I’ll quit the program and wait to address the other issues at 10:00 a.m.

I chose my times for checking email based on when I do my mindful and mindless work over the course of the day — scan at 8:00 a.m., full check at 10:00 a.m., full check after lunch around 1:00 p.m., a scan around 3:00 p.m., and then a final end-of-workday check at 5:00 p.m. I do not have my new message indicator light on my email program activated, and I actually completely close out of the program when not in use. If your job allows you to behave in this manner, I strongly recommend it. It significantly helps my productivity to not be tempted to check email constantly.

Thank you, James, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Please check the comments for even more suggestions from our readers.

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21 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: To check or not check email first thing at work?”

  1. posted by Rebecca on

    It depends what you do on first arrival in the office. My first task (after getting a drink whilst the computer wakes up) is to review my to-do list, and try to clear down my inbox. But this is with using Outlook task manager and flagging emails so they appear as tasks (with the quickest one being “reply to this email”).

    Then if anything is urgent I can respond and I know what I have already recieved as tasks for the day. This was especially important when working with people in different time zones: it highlighted what needed a response that day.

  2. posted by Cathy W on

    Email filters can help with this a lot, I think: if all your mail from your boss, for example, goes into a separate folder automatically, the scan process involes a lot less mental filtering because it’s immediately obvious that you have a new message from your boss.

  3. posted by Cissy on

    If you’re getting burned at work because the boss and important clients expect their emails to be answered, and they aren’t, that’s going to be an issue when performance reviews come up.

    The issue then isn’t productivity, it’s prioritizing. In general, it’s not a bad idea to give the boss’s expectations high priority. If the boss is unreasonable, that’s another issue. (Clients are all unreasonable – that’s just a given! But you have to handle that gracefully.)

    I don’t know what kind of business you’re in, but I’m a writer (business communications, not novels!), but even though I love those long swaths of time with the door closed and the email turned off, I make a point of checking email regularly, to be sure I’m being responsive to the unfolding day.

    It’s only good business sense for You, Inc. to be responsive to your best customers – the boss and the company’s clients.

  4. posted by Karyn on

    There’s a difference between e-mail which is essential communication for the day’s work and e-mail which is low priority. Since I don’t currently work a job which requires me to process e-mail, for me the principle makes sense: Don’t get caught up in checking my personal e-mail (or Facebook, or my favorite blogs, etc.) when I have more important things to do with the time between waking up and heading out to work.

    If I’m expecting an important communication, then I will open it and, as Erin suggests, just scan the senders and subject lines for anything that looks like I should read it right away. As soon as that’s done, I close the e-mail and get to my More Important Priorities.

  5. posted by chacha1 on

    At work I get copied on masses of email that I don’t have to respond to or deal with, so I immediately scan my in-box, delete everything that doesn’t relate to my responsibilities, then do a quick scan of everything else (to mentally queue my day).

    In personal email, I have set up three addresses for three different purposes. The consequence is that it’s very easy to scan each in-box and see if a message is a) immediately deletable; b) actionable; c) just informational. On a single pass I can delete all the junk, read all the information, and then I’m cleared down to the stuff I need to respond to or act on.

    I use slack time at work to deal with personal email so I don’t have to even look at it at home, unless I really really want to.

  6. posted by Laura H on

    I really think it depends on the job you are in also. I am in Customer Service. (I handle product lines for a big company vs the kind of rep that works in a phone bank taking orders for sweaters.) Anyway…I have to have my email open to monitor it at all times and sort of keep prioritizing the emails as they happen. Huge time suck? YES. But it’s the nature of my job.

  7. posted by Jodi on

    I have a similar process for paperwork/mail. I scan what comes in every day by the return address on the envelope. If I see something that might be urgent, I will open it then. Otherwise, bills etc. goes straight into my box until Thursdays when I process my mail.

  8. posted by cathleen on

    My job requires that I check email constantly, on my phone or desktop or laptop or iPad. (I work at the company named for a fruit:)

    Also, as my job is global I get emails at all hours of the day and night so it helps me to stay on top of things to check whenever I’m awake ๐Ÿ™‚
    I’m fortunate, that I love my job and don’t mind it.

    I’m lucky that I am a natural multitasker so it doesn’t cause me stress or poor performance. YMMV

  9. posted by Joanne on

    First I’ll mention that I am an avid GTD’er (check out David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”) and have implemented the system all the way. This is how it is working for me:
    1. I never forget that I am a knowledge worker, and that managing my email is a critical part of my job. Who am I to say the overnight message from my boss is less important than the other critical stuff I had planned to do today?
    2. Processing my email takes real brain power. It is best done when I am most productive. Fortunately that’s first thing in the morning for me.
    3. When I process my email, I open up every one and deal with it immediately.
    – If it’s complex, I figure out what the very next action is, and move the email out of my in-box and onto an appropriate list based on context (lists by context is key to the GTD system). Later when I go to execute my lists, the upfront brain-work has already been done.
    – If I can reply in less than two minutes, I do so right then, to save me the trouble of moving it to a list.

    I get my in-box to zero at least every 24 hours, or more frequently if work is getting really intense. During the day, I may scan my emails and pick and choose what to open, but once it’s opened, it’s dealt with as above.

  10. posted by eccoyle on

    I struggle with checking email throughout the day and working on multiple things at once. I’m the admin asst for a small business so a large part of my job is answering phone calls and emails but I also do many other things. Halfway through the day I end up with 5 different unfinished projects on my desk because I keep getting interrupted with something that takes precedence. Then, at the end of the day, I’ve only crossed one item off of my high priority to-do list because of all the new tasks that came up.


  11. posted by Steve on

    I have both followed this advice with regards to not checking e-mail and avoided it.

    I used to spend a couple of hours each morning working on things immediately prior to the start of the day, and then check e-mail immediately after that. I was caught by some urgent e-mails, and shifted the process to an earlier time in order to avoid the problem.

    Everyone appears to have been doing this. There is no time early enough to avoid the problem any more. There is no way to avoid the issue using this type of strategy. The problem is actually this:

    Why is someone sending an important task via e-mail without following up with a phone call? E-mail is one-way. You don’t know that the task has been received and acknowledged. The expectations of some people is broken, and there is no etiquette that is socially accepted to follow.

    So: the problem appear to be:

    1/ One-way communication
    2/ No well defined etiquette for using e-mail and other technologies in requesting service, etc.

    Planning your day can only get you so far.

  12. posted by Kristine on

    It’s a process of trial and error, but if email is a standard part of your business/work life, you must come up with a way to prioritize and organize that works for you. I tend to use my in-box as a way to track tasks that arrive by email – it doesn’t leave my in-box until the task is completed. But once it’s done, it gets filed into a relevant folder immediately. Every day, it’s a personal goal to have no more messages in my in-box than I can see on the screen without scrolling. For me, this works. (Well, in addition to having a weekly, prioritized, to-do list.)

    I have seen e-mail filters backfire for some people, my current boss being one of them. This individual has set up filters for every staff member – each incoming email is filed away in a folder by their name as soon as it arrives. The problem? He’s often out of the office, and until recently, didn’t realize that he wasn’t seeing messages in those folders when he used his iPhone to check email, so staff messages were never seen. Also, when he views a message online and it’s marked as “unread,” if he doesn’t respond immediately, I’ll never hear back on an issue. This is particular to his style – you have to figure out how to work with what you have – but beware of the filter function and emails getting lost in the shuffle.

  13. posted by Gilraen on

    I am with Joanne on this one. I use the GTD the same way as she does. I check it first thing in the morning after lunch and half an hour before I leave (this helps me to set up the next day). In a global environment one has to learn that business continues the 16 hours that I am not there.

    One of the things that I have found is that there are general rules, but not all general rules work for everybody the same way. You have to make them work for you in a way that suits your personality and your way of GTD.

  14. posted by Pamela on

    Getting burned for not reading your email in a timely manner obviously means you need to change how to you monitor your email.

    In some businesses — I work in the legal field myself — it really is going to be the primary way of communication with bosses, clients and co-workers. If you have clients in other time zones or a boss that likes to email you in the middle of the night as mine does, checking your email first thing has got to be the priority. And, you will probably have to keep on top of it more often than 3 times a day.

    At a minimum, I check my email first thing, before and after any meeting or conference call in case something new and relevant has come in, before and after lunch, and before I leave for the day. I usually check it as I am winding down for the night just so I know if I have to go into work early, etc. I read very fast (it’s my job) so perhaps I have an edge. But, I find that it takes very little time to delete the dreck, flag any follow-up or later reading, and respond quickly where necessary. And, I get between 60 to 80 emails a day. In my case, I also have to keep up with my boss’ email. He expects us to be familiar with the contents of his inbox. Most of our meetings start with, “I am sure you saw the email from ____.”

    And, these days you can’t expect someone to follow up with a phone call about an important email either. The expectation is that you actually read the emails that are sent to you, and if you are out or unavailable, you should have an out-of-office message. Frankly, I would prefer that someone email me rather than interrupt my work flow with a phone call — email is much less intrusive. If they need to have an extended conference call or meeting, its appropriate to schedule one — using email.

    Perhaps my workplace has embraced email beyond the norm, but I don’t think so. Accept that email is not going to go away. You just have to learn how to use it as the tool it is.

  15. posted by Jay on

    The expectation at MY office is that if we are at our desks in the office, we get the emails that are sent to us. ASAP, promptly, immediately, etc.

    At 10:45, our boss might send an email to several of us that we must report to the conference room at 11:00 to discuss ______________. While most emails are not so critical, we have to be aware of all the emails as they come it.

  16. posted by Noah Sanders on

    My workplace is similar to Jay’s. An email is expected to be seen almost immediately and responded to in a reasonable time frame (2-3 hours during the workday).

    I check my email on my phone or iPad on the way to work and clear out anything from overnight that I can get out of the way. Once I arrive at the office I keep my email open on a second monitor and scan the from and subject lines as they come in. If it appears to be urgent or is from my boss I will read it right away. Otherwise I stop at the bottom of the hour and spend a few minutes replying to email and creating action items.

  17. posted by Maciej, Poland on

    Most of previous commenters say, they must check their e-mail first at work, more, they have to be present in their e-mail program every minute they are at work. I understand you, but it is very unproductive and addictive habit. The problem is procrastination: every mail read makes your mind jumps somewhere else from your current task. I’d prefer Erin’s way: quick scan first, full scan at 10.00 and two full scans and one quick later during the day. I believe in many not-hotline-service workplaces it can be implemented successfully with no harm. I will try it in the following week ๐Ÿ™‚

  18. posted by Rondina Muncy on

    I thought this was a particularly good question. I do exactly the same thing that Erin does. It works.

  19. posted by Anita on

    If you work in an industry that tends to have tight deadlines and frequent changes in direction, then being reachable at all times is very important.

    If you are self-employed or run a business in which you interact with clients, an hour can make the difference between getting a new client and having him/her move on to your competition because they responded promptly to a question or sent in a quote before you did.

    However, if you generally do long-term project work and don’t have tight deadlines or frequent reporting to worry about, then you can probably afford to check your email only 3-4 times a day.

    In my work, not only do I check my email first thing in the morning, but Outlook stays on all day and I get notified of each email as it comes in. I really don’t find this to affect my productivity at all – it should never take more than 5-10 seconds to decide what to do with an email – either delete, archive, respond immediately or save for later. If you’re getting caught up in things that are not a priority, that’s not your email’s fault – you need to work on your ability to prioritize.

  20. posted by Claire on

    I’m really glad that someone asked this question. I am going into the legal field, and my experience has shown me that waiting a couple of hours to check and respond to emails will not be accepted. You’re expected to be on top of emails coming in. So I am extremely interested in hearing how people in that kind of work environment handle the constant bombardment of incoming emails. I want to start off on the right foot. ๐Ÿ™‚

  21. posted by Rick on

    Our email system allows you to access from home.

    There are a lot of arguments against it (keep work/home separate, etc.), but I like to take a look in the evening and scrap anything that’s not important.

    This way, it’s one less task first thing in the morning.

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