If you work a typical 9-5 office job, your morning routine might look like this: You start your workday (either in an office or in your home) by sitting down at your desk with a cup of coffee. You might say hi to your coworkers or hop on a morning Zoom meeting. Then, what’s the first thing you do? If you’re in the majority, you probably said, “Check your email.”
This is the norm for many of us in the workplace. We want to organize our messages and respond to any emails we’ve received while out of the office, before we can attend to other tasks or projects. In fact, a recent survey revealed that 17% of Americans check their email as soon as they wake up and 55% check it before they make it into work.
However, this may not be the most advisable way to start your day. Checking email can often be a good way to avoid starting on more important tasks and can make it hard to prioritize by adding to your to-do list before you’ve had a chance to get started on it.
“Not only can it throw off your schedule and to-do list for the whole day—how many times did you open your inbox to ‘just check’ and then, hours later, you look up and realize your morning is gone?—but it wastes precious hours when most people are operating at their peak levels of productivity,” TopResume career expert Amanda Augustine said.
Besides, if someone needs something urgent from you, it’s likely they will communicate through a more immediate platform such as instant messaging tools, text, or Slack.
“Sometimes, a 5-minute phone call can clear up what could take 15 e-mail exchanges. It’s important not to over-rely on it, especially when you may have other tools at your disposal that can save time and be more efficient,” career expert Elizabeth Whittaker-Walker said.
Many experts recommend waiting a few hours, or even until the end of the day to respond to emails, so you can prioritize tasks already on your list for the day first.
My old manager used to love this old quote by Mark Twain: “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”
The idea is that you are most productive first thing in the morning, so you should take on your most important tasks, before attending to anything else. The email should not be your “frog,” so to speak.
I decided to give this a try and avoid checking my email entirely until the end of my workday. During this time, I noticed a few things happen:
Anxiety set in
I felt a little bit anxious by not checking my email first thing in the morning. I knew I would have to wait until the end of the day, and if something important came in, I would miss it. I didn’t want to come across as rude if someone had an urgent question or a new assignment came in.
I found myself wanting to look, just to be sure that there wasn’t anything needing my attention. However, I decided to wait it out and knew that I would be able to respond to everything once I had completed my other tasks for the day.
I was more productive with my time
Without the distraction of email or the need to respond to other’s needs throughout the day, I was able to focus on the work I already had scheduled for myself.
In some ways, I felt motivated to get more done because I knew that when I finished, I would be able to check my email and respond to anything else that needed my attention. It felt good to know that at the end of my day, I would be dealing with more administrative tasks, rather than cramming to finish important projects I had put off all day.
I also had more energy to devote to the tasks at hand, because I didn’t start my day by giving energy and attention to other people.
I didn’t miss anything
The truth is, nothing urgent even came through my email while I was avoiding checking it. At one point, I did receive a work-related phone call asking me to take on some new projects. I was able to handle this in all of five minutes and then move on with my day.
I also knew that the details of those projects would be waiting in my inbox when I finished my work day and that I could look at them later, instead of getting wrapped up in a new task before I had finished my current one.
There were really only two or three emails at the end of the day that required a response from me and none of them were so time-sensitive that they couldn’t wait.
I didn’t feel stressed at the end of the day
When I finally finished my work and checked my email, I truly felt done with work for the day. I didn’t feel panicked or rushed or like there was anything I had missed. I knew that by prioritizing my to-do list, I had accomplished everything I needed to accomplish.
After responding to the emails I needed to respond to, I shut down my computer and enjoyed the rest of my night without worrying about work or what I had left unfinished.
All in all, waiting to check my email until the end of the day was a good reality check. It made me realize how often I use email as a procrastination tool, when really I could be focusing on other things.
However, I think there is balance to be found with this. A happy medium I would recommend is waiting until you’ve completed at least one important task before checking your email, and then just skimming through to see if anything requires an immediate response. If not, it can wait until you finish your list.
Gretchen Rubin, the author of “The Happiness Project,” recommends something she calls the “one minute rule” that I think is applicable here. If a task takes less than one minute to complete or respond to, then go ahead and do it to clear up space in your head. If not, leave it until later and prioritize what is most important.