A Method for Checking Email that Might Actually Make You Productive

I have a lot of conversations with people about productivity hacks. Everyone is looking for a better system, a short cut, a smarter way to get things done. 

I call this “productivity porn.”

How many times have you clicked an article about some great new idea to save time, only to find yourself wasting time? I do it nearly every day. #thestruggleisreal.

One of these common pieces of productivity wisdom is to only check your email once or twice a day. And never first thing in the morning. When you check your email upon wakening, kittens are thrown into a well or something. It’s terrible!

I’d like to fight back with a different approach, one more rooted in reality than some optimistic hope that people aren’t checking their phones every morning. Hell, my wife uses hers as an alarm clock (while I’m kicking it old school with the AM/FM radio). This thing isn’t going away.  

Think of it as the difference between abstinence-only programs and actual sex education. The former buys into a false belief that you can prevent people from doing it. The latter addresses reality.

When it comes to our phones, why not accept the fact that we’re mentally weak, embrace reality, and figure out a better way?

Here’s what I do:

Every morning, from 6:30 to 6:50, I meditate. My daughter wakes up at 7:00 AM on the dot. Every morning. With no alarm clock. It’s fascinating, really. Anyway…

When I get done meditating, I know I have ten minutes “to kill.” This is when I check email.

Why? Because this doesn’t leave me much time to do anything in depth, so I get to focus on quick wins.

First, I delete the junk (go read this post about unsubscribing to lists - it will change your life). That usually cuts my list in half.

Then I check the summary Google calendar sends to me. This gives me an overview of my day, getting me thinking about what I have to do once I drop the kids off. (BTW: don’t do this before meditating or you’ll clog up the pipeline about all the shit you need to get done).  

Lastly, I read any emails that pertain to me or my job personally. Sometimes, I just leave these marked as unread so I can pay more attention to them later. If something looks urgent, I open it right away and reply. Otherwise, I handle it later.

Then I get on with my morning. Shower, breakfast, kids to school, work.

Usually, I’ll have a couple of more emails to handle once I settle in for the day. Most often, though, the ten minutes I devoted earlier in the day clears things out and gets me started on the right foot.

Technically, checking email isn’t the FIRST thing I’m doing, but it’s definitely one of the first things.

Once I’m at work, I can focus on working. Yes, I check my email, but only if I’m doing things that require low levels of brain power.  

Never when I’m writing.

When I write, the email is blocked, the phone is off, and my focus is on that one task - writing. 

This is the only time I “batch” my email checks. Once I’ve knocked out a good chunk of writing, taken phone calls, or sat in on meetings, then I devote more focus to checking email.

Why does this matter to you?

Because let’s face it: As much as you’d like to think you’re going to transform yourself into some sort of productivity robot, you’re not. That’s why you’re reading this articles about being productive when you should just be figuring out a better way to accept reality. We all think we should be doing more, when we should really just being doing things better.  

So find a system that works for you, put down the productivity porn, and get back to work! ;)

 Let’s recap:

  1. Wake up and meditate or exercise.
  2. Do a quick (10-minute max) scan of email to delete junk, check calendar, respond to urgent emails.
  3. Get on with your work day.
  4. Check it off and on ONLY after you have some solid work to show. Bonus: Stop reading productivity hack articles.  

Give my method a shot and see how it works for you.

Oh, and one more thing...Can we just be honest with one another? The kids are boinking, despite our efforts to convince ourselves they’re not.