7 Reasons You Should Never Check Email First Thing In The Morning

“Lose an hour in the morning, and you will be all day hunting for it.”
-Richard Whately

#1 – Ignorance Is Bliss..fully Productive

When it comes to email, ignorance is bliss.  That’s why if you’ve got something important you want to make progress on, I have these four words for you:

Don’t check your email.

As soon as you get up, work on something important for 30-45 minutes, and only then check it. If you can stand it, wait even longer.  Some days I don’t check email at all until after lunch.

And you know what? As long as you’re ignorant of everything else that’s going on outside, you can concentrate on what you want to work on.

You don’t know what fires need to be put out, you don’t know about that special sale that’s going on today and you don’t know about that funny video your buddy sent you.

Any new information you get can cause you to get distracted. On a quick tangent, this is also why I often don’t look at any news in the morning, don’t turn the TV on, and listen to audiobooks or educational podcasts instead of the radio in my car – I don’t want anything to distract me.  I can’t control everything, but I can control my own self made distractions.

#2 – It’s Not Your Todo List

Do you know what is most important for you to work on?  Do you know the first thing you want to do this morning? Then go ahead and do it!

On the other hand by checking email, you risk doing what someone else wants you to do.  Every time you open an email, you should consider whether it’s more important than everything else on your task list – but realistically, how many of us actually do that?

If you don’t, then the items you end up working on (even if it’s just replying and giving information) end up being tasks for other people rather than yourself.

Or more bluntly, when you check your inbox, the emails you get are a todo list someone else makes for you.

Who is in charge of your time – you, or the person emailing you?

#3 – It’s An Excuse To Lack Direction

Let me ask you this: Why are you checking email first thing in the morning anyway?

Frequently it’s because you don’t know what you’re supposed to be working on.

And I’m certainly not immune to this myself.  If I’m checking my inbox too often, that’s frequently an early warning sign that my todo list has gotten off track somewhere.

Let me get on my soapbox for a second:  Don’t use checking email, cleaning your desk, or random metawork to distract you from the important tasks you need to do. If you’re blindly checking email first thing in the morning, the real problem isn’t that you’re wasting time checking email – the real problem is that you don’t see checking email as a low priority activity, because you haven’t decided what the high priority activities area.

When you don’t have a clear list of priorities, checking email becomes an urgent activity that you do at the expense of your important ones.

If this strikes a nerve with you don’t worry – it’s easy to fix.  Check out my discussion on the urgent versus important time management matrix. And stop checking email so frequently =)

#4 – Reaction vs “Proaction”

When you check your email, the best case scenario is you checked at exactly the right moment, just when a super important email came in – and you can take action right away.  How often does that actually happen? Rarely.

More frequently, one of two things happens:  in the relatively “good” case, there is absolutely nothing new for you to do. In  that case, you’re wasting your time checking your email anyway, and you can check it less often.

That’s usually not the case though is it? Often when I check email, the worst case happens:  I end up with more work to do – and because we’re in “check email” mode, we start replying to them at the expense of the task we were just working on. Rather than actively setting an agenda, email forces you to react to items as they come in – regardless of their true priority.

I prefer taking proactive actions – what I call proaction. Work on the things that are important to you, regardless of whether they’re urgent or simply at the top of your inbox.

Stop wasteful actions, and focus on productive actions instead.

#5 – Searching For Excuses

I know for me personally, if I’m blindly checking email (or Twitter, or Facebook, or any number of ways I waste time online) I’m usually not checking for anything important – I’m usually just searching for an excuse to not do the work I know I must do.

I’m searching for any reason why I can tell myself later I didn’t get the work done that needed to be (“I had to help John with that report” or “I had to research that question for Mike”).

Don’t fall into that trap. Don’t give yourself an out by checking your email for an excuse to fail.

Don’t check your email if you’re looking for a way out of the task at hand – acknowledge the task you need to get done, and do it.

Cross that bridge – it’s not going away.

#6 – There’s No Set Time Limit

Meetings get a bad rap for being a waste of time – but at least you usually know how long a meeting will last.

If I asked you how long you’re going to spend on email once you open your inbox, odds are you don’t know – or you’ll underestimate it.

The problem is, checking email only takes a minute – but you can get sucked into follow up activities that result from opening your email, and there’s no way of knowing how much time these will take.

In fact, I have had days where I’ve checked my email, and literally not gotten out of my inbox until after lunch.

You have a set time limit for how many productive hours you have in a day – don’t let email suck you in and cause you to devote more time to it than you can afford.

#7 – It Builds Expectation

A lot of people tell me “But I have to check my email!  People expect a response frome me in the morning!”

First of all, I don’t believe that.  There are some requests that require immediate responses, but they’re much less frequent than you might think. Second of all, let’s not just accept that expecting a response is the only option – let’s ask ourselves why that is.

Do you know why people expect a response from you in the morning?

It’s probably because you’ve always responded first thing in the morning and you’ve built that expectation.

The more often you check email, the more often people will expect you to check it.  Just stop checking it first thing in the morning, and people won’t expect it anymore.

=). I know, easier said than done.  Don’t worry, after the first week or two nobody will think anything of it.

If You *Must* Check Email…

Some of you may protest – “That’s how I keep in touch with my team!” or “I need to hear back before I can move forward.”   I can understand that – there are times when I am expecting to hear back on something important (not just urgent) and do briefly check email first thing in the morning as well

Here’s the thing: If you must, constrain yourself to only check a limited subset of email, and I recommend you follow these rules:

  • Only check if there is something specific you are looking for. Most important – don’t go fishing around. Check it with a specific plan, a specific email you’re looking for from a specific person.
  • Separate low value emails via filters (“rules” in outlook) or separate email addresses so you don’t even see them in your inbox when you check
  • Set a time limit.  Commit to checking for 5 minutes, just to look for that one piece of information – and have your exit strategy ready. Before you open your inbox, decide what you’ll do if 1) the email is there 2) the email isn’t there 3) the email is incomplete. Don’t be reactionary – proactively decide what action you will take based on the outcomes you expect.

Now, go forth, and do something, anything, but don’t check your email too often =)

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