Do you check email or does email check you?

I have to admit that at this point in time, email checks me.

I like to think that I am good at email…
I generally respond quickly to emails. I take action on emails and get them out of my inbox as quickly as I can. I try to respond as quickly, thoroughly and helpfully as I can. I’m not quite up to my husband’s standards of one word replies, but I make a practice of quoting sections of email I’m responding to so that I don’t need to use too many words to make the conversation understood. I know some people find this weird, but I like it. I even use proper sentences and punctuation in my emails! I don’t always proof read them, so there may be mistakes, and I do throw in smilies here and there, but overall they’re not too shabby.

Thanks to watching Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero presentation I have a reasonable organisation system. I have a few more emails in my inbox than I think I should, but it’s not too crazy.

I have all kinds of Gmail filters in effect, which after being totally bombarded with emails upon announcing the launch of Kristarella Studios, I tidied up and rearranged. A lot of non-urgent emails skip my inbox entirely and things that I need to respond to (but am not right now) are marked with stars (or exclamation marks or question marks etc).

Despite all this “being good at email” I find that I have less and less energy every day to deal with email. It just keeps coming and I keep feeling like I want to run and hide from it. The fact that I want to run from it and yet feel obliged to maintain my “good at email” status and continue to check it constantly, definitely indicates that email controls me.

It’s sucking the life outta me and I am not sure what to do about it.

When should I check my email?

I think the first answer to this question is less frequently. Seriously, I check my email pretty much every time I switch tasks. If I hit Cmd+TAB to change programs I inevitably find myself at Gmail, just to see if there’s something I should attend to. If my brain fades for a moment and I forget what I was just about to do, I check my email instead. As I think about how often I look at my inbox I think, “This is just not normal.”

A friend said the other day, he wasn’t sure if people check their emails between Friday afternoon and Sunday night… While here I am checking every 20 minutes or more!

Also, check at the right times of day. Don’t check your email as soon as you wake up or before you go to bed. I read that fantabulous suggestion on LifeDev.

Some people might be able to check their email at these times in a healthy way. My husband checks email on his iPhone as he wakes up, and it works for him. I drag myself out of bed and plonk down in front of my computer… in my pyjamas… every morning. I generally don’t get up until I’m so hungry or tired that I need breakfast or coffee, or I’m sweaty or cold and need to shower and put real clothes on.

Checking your email before you go to bed can leave you with thoughts that prevent you from sleeping. I’d be much better off reading a chapter of a novel than emails before bed.

Turn off those notifications

I did this years ago, but I’m just saying it in case you are in danger of being controlled by your email. Don’t let your email client beep or ding at you when you get a new email!

It’s distracting, and I know it’s exciting, but it’s too often a Facebook friend request, a reply to a comment on someone else’s blog, a newsletter, or some stupid thing that’s harder to unsubscribe from than to delete every few days. It’ll be much more exciting when you get through all the things you intended to do today because you weren’t distracted by email every 5 minutes.

Don’t let Twitter become your inbox

Twitter is cool and I will respond to questions, replies and DMs if they warrant a reply. However, I don’t think it should become a reliable method of contact such that it replaces email. Also, if you have stopped checking email as soon as you get up, don’t replace it with checking Twitter as soon as you get up!

Don’t let your inbox be your task list

I used to use my inbox as my to-do list. Anything that I hadn’t replied to was in there, as well as anything that I needed to get done.

This resulted in an inbox that was not only very large but also overwhelming and ineffective. It also resulted in a task list full of things that generally didn’t get done.

Some people promote email to send yourself reminders. I used to do that a lot; especially when I used the university library computers. I could open up Gmail to send myself notes, links and documents. It’s a perfectly valid productivity approach. Just don’t let your inbox be your task list. If you really want to use emails as a list, make a separate folder or label for those tasks. If not, deal with the emails by adding the details to an outside task list and archive or delete the email. Then make a time to actually deal with those things.

Email is a form of communication. Sometimes you can use it to communicate to yourself, but if you don’t respond to yourself, you won’t be sitting there thinking “Dude?! Why aren’t you replying to me?” Someone else might be.

Don’t ignore people

Of course — and this is part of what has made me into an email-whipped basket case — you don’t want to ignore people. Particularly clients who pay you and will speak of you to others.

I want people to feel like I’m listening, I care about their needs and I want to help them. In fact, I don’t just want people to feel that way. I do want to help them. That’s why I’ve spent so much time on the Thesis forums and answering questions on my blog, Twitter and email as well.

James made the point on Freelance Folder that you shouldn’t ignore your clients. However, I think you also need to build a reasonable expectation with your clients as to how long it might take to reply to emails and what the best ways and times to contact you are.

If it’s urgent, email is the wrong medium. For me, if I’m on my computer, I’m connected to Google Talk. So that’s a much better way to catch me for something urgent. And if I’m not at my computer, then I probably can’t help you immediately anyway. For others, a phone call might be better.

Also, if I keep responding to emails immediately then people will always expect me to respond immediately. If I hit a busy patch, or need a rest, or can’t face my email because it’s driving me insane (as has been the case a couple of times in the last week and if you were victim to that, I apologise). It’s not practical and it’s not sustainable.

What’s the answer?

So, what’s the answer to prevent email from checking you into an email-controlled, email-whipped basket case who can’t face their inbox?

@CraneFactory says:

step 1: stop treating email as instantaneous communication. treat it like snail mail and just check it once/twice a day.

@davidairey said:

Email brings an added expectation of immediacy. People expect your response yesterday, so good time management comes in handy.


I find regular intervals much more productive. If I responded to emails immediately, I’d be forever typing. :)

Both of those responses indicate that timing is where it’s at. You need to meet people’s expectations of immediacy, without treating it as an immediate communication method.

For me, I think the answer will involve not checking emails as soon as I get up. Perhaps I’ll check email after I’ve showered and had breakfast and while I have my morning coffee. I should also check email regularly, but not constantly. Regular, as in orderly, periodically, in conformity; not necessarily frequently and certainly not all the time.

It should also mean that you reply to emails that require a reply. Don’t put replying off because you’re afraid of the email content or the sender, or because you don’t feel like it, or because you feel overwhelmed. If you’re good with most of your emails, but one or two fall through the cracks, then you’ve let one or two people down (yes, I’m looking at myself as I say these things).

It’s not only timing that matters, but content too. These tips for making email more effective might help with that.

Regularly, but not constantly. I think that might be my new email mantra.

What do you think?

How long do you think is a suitable time to wait for a reply to an email? Does the content of the email you sent make a difference? Would you rather receive a quick “Thanks for your email, I’ll respond with more detail in X-ish hours.”, or just wait for the full response?

Do you check email or does it check you?


  1. says

    Basically, with email; I have the notification turned on for Google Talk; so I know an email is there…
    But the good thing about that is the fact that I can see…is it something worth diverting to immediately, reading, and (possibly) responding? Or is it something that I don’t have to read right away; like a new follower, or a reply on YouTube? So to an extent, that’s why I think notifications are handy… You know what’s there, and if it’s worth fretting over; you’ll have already started dealing with it.
    I also fetch my email on my iPhone around every 30 minutes. Generally, I won’t have anything; but if I do, it is (most of the time) an email from my friend in America…so; it’s something that I can reply to whenever, and the 30min fetch means that I might not even get the email until 20-30 mins after it was sent. Sometimes I don’t know I had the email until over an hour after; so that form of communication is good in that, you can grab email at any stage, but if it’s just something in your pocket, it comes in at intervals…yes, frequently, but…also not so frequently that it basically drives you. Unless you’re bored stupid and need to keep checking for emails.
    The iPhone is handy when you want to see if you have any email; and also for when you don’t want to HAVE to worry about checking emails, and just let them come to you every so often.

    Twitter: This is something I’ll generally load up in the morning on Twitteriffic, then I can see if any of the people I follow in the US have said anything good, and then every few hours or when I’m board, I’ll reload just so I can hear the little chirp (I find it entertaining…I wish it was my message tone) and see if anything new has come up.

    This is turning into a bit of a blog post of my own! Luckily it’s pretty much finished 😛

    For me, notifications are good…It tells me I have some email, but it also shows me whether it’s something I need to look at, or whether it’s something I just wait and go to delete when I next load Gmail…and my iPhone is handy for communication abroad, emailing at intervals and for Twitter etc.

    …I feel like I rambled a bit here; but hopefully I gave some decent insight :)

  2. says

    Hey Jus, that’s interesting that you find the iPhone to be a frequent checking thing, but not controlling or compulsive. Dave probably feels the same way.

    When I was using Mail as an email client it beeps, but it doesn’t give a notification in the corner of what it’s beeping about, so you have to go to Mail to see what it is and by that time you’re already distracted from what you’re doing. That kind of notification can be unhelpful.

    Sounds like you check email. 😉

  3. says

    Yeah, Mail on the iPhone is the same…
    You get the beep and vibration as a message comes in, but there’s no preview on the unlock screen like there is an SMS so if you want to see, you have to open the Mail app…but you get the 2 line preview and sender, so you can be like…”ehh, whatever” and leave it till later, or if it’s worth opening at the time open it then…

    Yay :)

  4. says

    If you haven’t already, you need to read Tim Ferriss’ “4 hr workweek” – he has seriously whittled down how much technology ties him down. A couple of suggestions from it:
    * Set up autoreplies that give expected timeframes for reply. For eg, if you tell people asking for quotes to use “Site Quote” in their subject line, they can get an instant response that says you’ll get back to them within 24hrs during the working week. If they send something from your contact form that has the subject urgent, you can send them a reply that gives them other ways to get in touch with you, like twitter/phone/whatever.
    * (addendum from my project mgt background) Set the expectations for maximum/worst case scenarios (and allow yourself to include time out for your own life), and then if you get back quicker you’ve overdelivered, which is always a good thing.
    * Schedule times for checking email, and do it in batches. For example, if you’ve got labels already assigned for quotes, those can be checked morning, after lunch, and before finishing. General enquiries once, no more than twice a day. Anything else definitely only once daily.
    * Set a timer and limit how long you spend on it – this one is really good for making you cut your email handling down to essentials!
    * Go through old emails to set up an FAQ system – either put it up on the site or set it up as autoreplies.
    * When you reply, use closed sentences that don’t invite further responses, and finish up by saying that you don’t expect a response unless they have further issues/questions.
    and for down the track when you’re ready to let go of having to do it all, let alone having to do it perfectly,
    * Consider outsourcing and getting a virtual PA to handle your email, respond to anything routine and forward you prioritised batches that you can work through in one session.

    Of course, all the tips in the world won’t help much if your problem is from over-committing yourself and not feeling able to say ‘no’. That’s my crusade, since as women we’re trained that way. If that’s the case, you need to focus on shifting yourself and your lifestyle stuff higher up the priority ladder, building assertiveness and letting go of that perfectionistic urge to show everyone not only that you can do it, but that you can do it really well, despite the ten million other things you already have on your list.

  5. says

    Okay, I admit. Email checks me. I especially liked your line about “some stupid thing that’s harder to unsubscribe from than to delete every few days” . . . I have lots of those, and now resolve to unsubscribe them.

    I know better. I know I need to have boundaries. But it’s all so damned addicting. How did we ever survive before email? I don’t know, but I think I was a shade less neurotic back then.

  6. says

    Email definitely checks me too. I am generally against a “once/twice a day” approach, because if you’re receiving a ton of emails, those two times a day can end up being long, torrid affairs with your Gmail. I do believe in allotting specific time periods to email checking, however. So whatever makes the most sense for you – maybe once when you get settled in at work, then as a lunch break (which is sometimes nice for me to get away and switch tasks) and then twice in the evening.

    Creating some sort of semi-regimented schedule is helpful. It’s not something you have to stick to 100%, but it’s something that you can always use as an excuse – “I don’t want to deal with all of this now – I’ll check it after dinner”. Plus, it gives you a sense of control over your email. And control is king.

  7. says

    I am also “good with my emails” and I check my emails quite often too, and I am learning to not spend so much time reading emails. But I am glad that I do not receive a lot of emails!

  8. says


    There’s plenty to interact with as you have a lot of neat points. Not allowing twitter to become ones inbox, it was for me until I got it under control. I’ll be honest, email was checking me for a long time but I’ve stepped away and setup filters to aid with organization. I only check email twice daily- surprisingly, there are some days when I don’t check it at all! :) You gotta love it but seriously, you’re right (James too), ignoring people is a no no. Thanks for sharing both your thoughts and the links. Cheers!


  9. says

    Crystal — thanks for that. Sounds like I should read that book. Unfortunately I’ve started several books recently and I’m not a very fast reader. They’re good tips though.
    I have suffered from an inability to say no, which I’m gradually trying to remedy, initially by just removing guilt when I say I can’t do something. I’ve learned you just have to be straight with people too, don’t fret about what they’re going to think about it. If they freak out, then try to come to a compromise, but otherwise, just say it.

    Terry — I guess before email people used the phone more or wrote letters and didn’t expect immediate replies. We’re actually coming into a generation that has not been without email. I almost belong to it myself. I’ve probably had an email since I was 12 when I started emailing my friends about random stuff (which we still do actually), but now email is an integral part of my business too. Before I had email I was too young to need or want it…

    Jeremy — true about those one or two email sessions becoming exhaustingly long. I think I’ve come to some sort of arrangement with myself that I can check email a few times a day or more, then what I do is I have only one or two longish reply sessions, where I reply to the things that need it. Since not all emails need replying to, they get filtered out at one of those other checking times. It’s less stressful and hopefully people feel that replies within a day are ok. Although, I just got a second email through a forum instead of my contact form because I didn’t reply to an (non-urgent) email over the weekend. I think one needs to just not stress about it and set their own personal boundaries.

    Pelf — I was the same. I didn’t even notice how often I checked email when I didn’t get too many, but now it’s just hectic and many of them are very important, so I really need to check myself that I’m not a slave to email.

    Mig — I barely check my email on the weekend now and it’s great. I glance over them once or twice and see if there’s anything urgent coming through (there was one yesterday, but I got an SMS about it too, although I might not have checked my phone before it was too late if I hadn’t seen the email), but otherwise I don’t do business on the weekend, it’s husband and home and church time. I won’t feel guilty about it either (I’m good at guilt, it’s not cool, need to tone it down).