Mindful Email Management

Strategies for disconnecting when work and home are the same place

This post is about disconnection as a critical component of a healthy work-life balance. More specifically, I’d like to use this post to advocate strategically disconnecting from email, and to share some ways in which I accomplish that. At a moment in time where — for most of us — work and home are literally the same physical space, occasionally disconnecting from email and then strategically re-engaging with it on our own terms can be mentally beneficial, emotionally supportive, and improve our work output and results.

Email is a double-edged sword for me, as someone who’s served consulting clients for the better part of fifteen years. On the one hand, it’s a core technology that enables me to do what I do (aside from Google, it’s probably the service I rely upon most heavily). As a Type B introvert, I literally can’t imagine achieving any modicum of professional success without it. 

Anduril, Flame of the West
Anduril, Flame of the West

On the other hand, email is also an addictive distraction, a productivity black hole, and — not infrequently — the bearer of bad news. Letting my inbox be a perpetually open communication channel can (and has) sink days and ruin weekends.

7 strategies for managing a relationship with, and usage of, email 

We live in a hyper-connected age, and while that’s an extremely powerful aspect of our reality, I think the ability to disconnect is an equally potent tool. Most of us can’t be “always on;” it would absolutely wear us down and we’d fall apart. I’d argue that even the people who believe they can stay “on” at all times and crush it 24/7 would benefit greatly from disconnecting at regular intervals. 

In addition to all that, I wanted to write this post for everyone who’s just trying to make it through the year 2020. This has been a tough one for all of us and with most knowledge workers working from home — whether they like it or not — it’s now exponentially more difficult to disconnect from the office. 

Some caveats before we get into the core of this post:

  • I don’t believe that email is evil or a lesser form of communication; email is great, but its pitfalls are just as significant as its strengths. 
  • The extent to which you can, or should, disconnect from email is job-dependent; I realize that at UpBuild, where we prioritize Focus over many other things, this strategic approach to email is more tenable than at a job or workplace where your core responsibility is managing and facilitating constant communication. 
  • If you disagree with any of what I’ve said here, please let me know in the comments!

I spend a lot of time thinking about how I manage email, and it’s a never-ending optimization campaign if there ever was one. Since I’ve tried a lot of ideas, approaches, and systems over the past five years of leading UpBuild, what follows are my seven best strategies for managing email in a mindful way. It’s not a definitive recommendation that I think everyone could or should accept wholesale, but I hope you can find value or inspiration in some of it. 

1. Realize that work is not that important

When it really comes down to it, work’s really not that important. Neither are you; neither am I. Believe it or not, I manage a company with that attitude. 😉 

The point that I’m trying to make here is that email can almost always wait for at least a few hours. For most digital knowledge workers, nothing about the email we send or receive involves life-or-death outcomes. It took me more years than I care to admit to come to the realization that my missing an email sent to me at 5 PM is never world-ending. 

The outcome of handling an email five minutes after it’s sent is, by and large, the same outcome as handling the email five hours after it was sent. It’s perfectly okay to set email aside for reasonable stretches and focus on Deep Work (phenomenal book, BTW). It’s also okay to, at the end of the day, put email away until the start of the next business day. 

I don’t want to have this blog post morph into a 10,000-word treatise on my philosophy on email, so I’ll cut it off there.

2. Schedule time to check email

For most folks, my recommendation is that you look at email as a specific, time-bound task that is performed each day. I’ve learned through painful experience that email can’t be a background process that just runs continuously. Furthermore, it’s the worst activity in the world for me to use to fill in the gaps in my workday. 

As great as email has the potential to be, it’s a to-do list with infinite space and it’s one to which anyone in the world can add items without your consent. The only solution, then, is to check it in a disciplined way, prioritize the to-do items that really matter, and then get the heck out. Knock those things out and then come back only when you’re ready to open those floodgates again.

Most days, I don’t check email until 10 or 11 AM. After that, I don’t check it until about 1:30 PM. Unless there’s a specific task that I’ve consciously put onto my to-do list that requires sending or responding to an existing email, I’m not in my inbox very much outside of those windows. 

Pro Tip: The first item in my Chrome bookmarks bar (shown below) is a direct link to Gmail’s “Compose” window. 

Clicking through to this allows me to draft (and, if needed, send) an email without opening the floodgates of my inbox. As I’m working through tasks that involve sending emails, I’ll queue emails up using that bookmark and then batch send them all when it’s time to brave the inbox. 

To set this up for yourself, bookmark this URL (but note that the highlighted number may need to change depending on how your Google accounts are set up):  

https://mail.google.com/mail/u/1/?view=cm&fs=1&tf=1

Fun Fact: On the topic of scheduling email, for the last 104 days, I’ve not opened my email if I haven’t meditated that day. No meditation, no email. It’s been a game-changer for me in both re-building a consistent meditation habit and also priming my mental state to deal with whatever’s waiting in the inbox. 

2.1 Schedule time when you don’t check email

Speaking of checking email at certain times, I think it’s equally (if not more) important to not check email at specific times. I try to never work in my inbox after 5:30 PM or before 8 AM. As a manager, I also make a habit to never send emails during that same window (anything I might queue up after hours can be scheduled using Gmail’s handy “Schedule Send” feature).

Below is an excerpt from something I now send to UpBuild team members on their first day on the job. 

“Never check email on weekends or late at night. It’s not worth it. Disconnecting is super important and allows you to do better work when you’re actually “clocked in”. Once you start checking email during off-hours, you make a habit of thinking about work all the time and you set an expectation with clients and team members that you’re always working and/or available. If there’s a true emergency, those who need to can text or call you. But that’s not going to happen. In five years, there’s never been an emergency that couldn’t wait until the start of the next business day.”

Remember, none of us are that important. 😉 

Pro tip: How you do anything is how you do everything. When it comes to how and when you respond to emails, remember that every exchange you have sets a tone and trains your recipient to expect you to do more of the same in the future. If you want to be the person who others can email at 7:30 PM on a Friday and expect a response, by all means, shoot off those late-night responses. If you want to condition people to expect a well-thought-out response after a reasonable wait, build that reputation for yourself, email by email. 

3. Keep your mobile device email-free

As much as I like to feel important (don’t we all?) and demonstrate all the ways in which I can hustle and/or crush it, I’ve come to the crushing (pun intended) realization that I don’t actually need email on my phone

How many times per week are you clocking or responding to an email on your mobile device that absolutely couldn’t wait until you were back at your desk (whatever your home office setup might be)? 

Since very few knowledge workers are traveling to and from a physically separate location for work these days, your home desktop or laptop may be the only thing you have to step away from when the day is done. If you appreciate your sanity, it’s vital that you don’t allow work to “follow you home,” even when you’re working from home. When you’re at work (i.e., at a full-featured computing machine), be at work. When you’re done, be done. 

Traveling for work is a notable exception when email might need to be on your phone, but none of us are doing much of that these days, are we? That said, in years past, I’ve only kept email apps active on my mobile device when I was traveling for an industry conference, deleting (or disabling) them immediately afterward.

Even when networking in-person pre-pandemic, I’d take care to confirm meeting times and locations with attendees beforehand. I’ve had two no-shows for “picking your brain” or “catching up over coffee” in the past two years. Once, I used the hour to read a book at the cafe instead. The other time, I went back to the home office after waiting for 15 minutes for my connection to show up. In both cases, I was both happier and more productive than I would have been spending that time checking work email on my phone. 

4. Set time limits

This may not be for everyone, but I use a timer when I check email to keep me on task. It’s far too easy for me to just open up my inbox and work out of it like it’s my job (it’s not) for the rest of the day. Any timer works, digital or physical, but I love using my Esington glass timer which gives me approximately 20 minutes (or 40, if it’s really needed). For web-based timers, try tomato-timer.com (h/t to Ruth)!

Think you’re great at managing email but never seem to get away from it? Try doing it in half the time, and then putting it aside for a few hours. You might be surprised by how much more efficient you become! 

5. Get Freedom

Setting a schedule, using a timer, and negotiating with yourself is all well and good until it fails. How many times have we set out with the best of intentions only to realize much too late that things are way off course? 

::raises hand sheepishly::

This is where the industrial-strength tool comes in. Meet Freedom

Freedom provides exactly what the name implies: freedom from the temptation to instinctively open your inbox (and other apps/sites). It’s a simple yet powerful app that allows you to completely block apps and/or websites that you need to get away from. Out of all the apps and systems I’ve experimented with to remove my own decision making in this way, Freedom does the best job of it. It’s nearly impossible to work around once you begin a blocking session (believe me; I’ve tried). 

I employ a number of blocklists and schedules within Freedom, but the one most applicable to this post is the one that blocks email. Every day, from 6 PM until 8:30 AM, I have gmail.com and the Gmail app blocked on all my devices. There’s no discipline required and there are no exceptions that I can make so I can “just scan my inbox”. It’s wonderful. It’s liberating. It’s freedom. 

6. Pause and ask, “Why?”

Out of all the tips thus far, I think this is the one I’ve personally found the most challenging. In years past, I could easily spend an entire day or week doing little else beyond email. I thought it was great at the time. 

  • I felt busy and productive. 
  • I felt needed and business-critical. 
  • I got to confirm and pay into my own self-image of a “very important startup founder”. 

But was it the time I spent checking my email that made any of those things true? Not really, no. What mattered was the value I created for my team, for UpBuild’s clients, for the business, and for the wider web. Email was a tool (one of many) that allowed me to do that. Checking email, in and of itself, was not what made the difference, but here’s the tricky part: checking email created the feeling of importance, of being needed, of being productive. 

I found that I frequently turned to email when I hadn’t set a clear priority for myself, when my world was full of ambiguity, when I was blocked, or when I was simply feeling particularly unfocused on a given day. Checking my inbox for the umpteenth time was a convenient way to get a dopamine hit and feel busy, productive, and valuable. 

Of course, being able to use email skillfully is critical in our line of work, but I now make an effort to pause before I hit up my inbox and ask, “why am I checking email now?

If you’re like me, it may be worth asking, “what do I hope to get by checking email constantly?” Ask, “what psychological reward do I get from checking to see what may have just arrived?” Compulsively checking email can be a dangerous habit. If that idea interests you in any way, I’d strongly recommend checking out James Clear’s Atomic Habits

Pro Tip: Use a visual reminder to catch yourself before you automatically open your inbox in your free moments. 

7. Consider Autoresponders

A word of warning: I don’t recommend this for most people. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything that’s been as polarizing as using this autoresponder. People either love it or they’re…quite offended by it. Please keep that in mind if you find yourself considering one of these. 

With that disclaimer out of the way, if you’re not in my contact list and/or we don’t have an active email thread going, you’ll most likely get an email autoresponder from me that directs you to this page.

Here’s a taste…

I’ve spent countless hours thinking about what my job is at UpBuild, and how I can make the impact I want to make in my professional life. As much as I want to be the person that helps everyone all the time, I’m simply not able to do that while doing what I need to do. I crafted this autoresponder because there are many, many instances in which this page is going to get a person the information or action they need hours, if not days, sooner than if they waited for me to get back to them. 

While I would never say that setting up a blanket autoresponder is something everyone should do, I would say that thinking about what your professional goals are, what you’re able to uniquely contribute to your company, and how email fits into that is something everyone should spend time wrestling with. 

Final Thoughts: Schroedinger’s Inbox

At the end of the workday, the ability to send well-crafted messages via the internet is absolutely incredible. It might be one of my favorite things about working on the web. 

Simultaneously, this always-open inbox happily collects these messages from anyone and everyone on the entire planet and shoves them straight into our awareness with no qualification. This makes it a land mine just waiting to be stepped on, day after day, for the entirety of our work lives. That is unless HEY really takes off.

While none of us (or, very few of us) can simply abstain from ever checking email, we can be strategic and disciplined about it. This is not just something we can do; it’s something we must do. 

I’ve found it helpful and amusing to refer to gmail.com as Schroedinger’s Inbox. While not everyone will feel ready to contemplate quantum mechanics while considering whether or not to check their email, just keep in mind that as long as you don’t check what’s waiting in your inbox, it simultaneously contains both the best possible news you could receive and the worst possible news. 

  • A client has fired you, and the client also loves you. 
  • Your bank account received an unexpected $10,000 deposit, and it’s also been closed for fraud. 
  • The website is shattering KPI records, and has also been deindexed by Google. 

Both outcomes, and every outcome in between, could exist until you open your inbox and observe what’s there. Knowing that, be mindful of when you chose to make that reality-establishing observation. Take a deep breath, set your timer, and step into it with intention.

Until next time, happy optimizing.

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