When to check email: How to stay your own boss

Some say team chat and other collaboration tools are killing e-mail. But despite the talk, e-mal is still going strong. It stays one of the most important communication channels in work environments. E-mails will be around for a while. Most of us need to deal with many of them. Often with dozens or even hundreds a day. Of course, not all are actionable. Nevertheless, they are coming in. And they keep distracting us from what we want to achieve.

Getting rid of e-mail as a communication tool is not possible and not reasonable. E-mail has several advances compared to other ways of communication. So how should we deal with e-mail to achieve maximum productivity? When to check your email inbox?

Inbox zero should be the leading principle for your e-mail

One key is to strive for inbox zero. There’s a common misunderstanding leading to critique of the inbox zero principle. Inbox zero is not about keeping your inbox at zero all the time. It is about deliberately choosing the times, you check your inbox and then (and only then!) processing it in full. So, you have an empty inbox afterwards.

The benefits are better clarity of your tasks and less anxiety of forgetting something important. Inbox Zero also increases your productivity. You can process mails in batch and reduce the number of distractions.

Do not read e-mail as it comes.

Thus, my obvious recommendation is to switch off all e-mail notifications. No sounds, not pop-ups, no vibrating phones. Not even badges. Instead, check them on you on schedule. You are the boss. But then the question comes to mind: “How should the schedule to check inbox look like? Exactly when should I check my e-mails?”

These are my best practices dealing with e-mail

Do not check e-mail first thing in the morning

If you rush to checking your inbox first thing in the morning, you make yourself a slave of the incoming messages. Better, use the morning hours for something that is valuable to you. For me, this is usually a writing session of 30 minutes or an important task that needs focused attention and a fresh mind. The latter I choose already the evening before. So, I can get to it right away. Others use the morning times for work-out, meditation or family time. Whatever it is, stay your own boss. Do not give in to the urge of getting consumed by the latest messages.

Do check your e-mail early in the day.

I object to starting your day with checking your mail. Still, I do recommend you to do one e-mail session relatively early in the morning. It can get you ahead of the game. Your replies will be right on top of your recipients’ inboxes, getting the most attention there. You delegate tasks early. So, you have a better chance to get what you need the same day. You will also have a good overview of whatever tasks came in overnight. This way, you can effectively plan your day and prioritize your agenda. After clearing your inbox, you can get to your tasks more lighthearted.

Do check your e-mails during the day on a fixed schedule

How often should you check your mails between the morning and the evening cleanup? This depends on your work environment (especially the communication culture) and the type of work you are doing.

When to check email? As a rule of thumb: It is much less frequent than you think.

Try to check as seldom as possible and as often as necessary. For me, one thorough cleanup around noon and emergency screening every 90 minutes has shown to be ideal.

During emergency screening I only scan the subject lines and sender addresses. I check for topics that need immediate attention and do not read any messages in full. I look for stuff, where, figuratively speaking, a house is on fire. Those I address, the rest will be ignored till the next inbox cleaning. That is till noon or evening. It is important not to read all the messages during emergency screening. Do not touch the same item in your inbox twice.

The actual number of e-mail sessions you do on a day is not the most important thing. What really counts is that you work on a deliberate schedule. You stay in control. In contrast to following the impulse to check your mail whenever you are bored, stuck with a task, or having a minor task finished.

Do check your e-mails near the end of the day.

Sometimes lurking issues may need immediate attention or could be delegated so that you can get them out of your way. Others can be scheduled for another day, for example by placing them in your tickler file. Emptying your inbox at the end of your workday will also mentally free you up. You won’t have to worry if bad surprises hide in your inbox.

Following these principles will allow you to check your e-mail and process it more efficiently.

This way, you focus on what needs to be done.

PS: You can apply this to other inboxes as well.