Back in May, I started checking email only once a day (and sometimes not at all if I had no meetings). I had to accept that no-email days would be scarcer than I’d like, but overall it’s been a good experiment. Typically I get through it as fast as possible (< 15 mins) and once a week I have a longer purge of my “star for later” items. Here’s what I’ve found:
Most emails do not need an instant response…
… and if someone is trying to make their disorganization your emergency, you probably don’t want to give them one anyway.
I loathe having a reactive workflow and do my best to avoid it. A reactive workflow is terrible for your productivity. The argument against email once-a-day is that stuff arrives that you “need” to respond to. Sure, on occasion. What I’ve found is – not often. And by not being instantly responsive you train people to be organized in what they ask of you. In a real emergency, they can reach you by other means. I’m always on IM, and I make my phone number available. What’s amused me is when people have panicked because they couldn’t get me via those means, it’s not like me checking email more often would help. I mean, sure, even if I checked email more often, I wouldn’t check it whilst giving a talk.
For me, the stuff I want to be responsive to arrives in other places – code reviews and bugs. I can check on those things there, not in my inbox. Then it’s more deliberate, “I’ve done my current task, what am I going to work on next?”
Fewer hours at work, no discernable change in productivity.
First thing I noticed – that I checked email when I was stuck. Second – I felt happier. Third – I was getting more done and going home earlier. You know the last 30 minutes of the day when you’re tired and not making progress? Email is a good time-filler there. Makes you feel productive, but really just keeps you away from your non-work life.
People miss things anyway.
People who check mail more say that they use filters heavily. They also admit that from time to time stuff gets filtered out that they should have read. Everyone is missing stuff. When you send an email and it’s important, and you don’t get a response, you follow up. I make a point of asking people for things in person wherever possible. But no system is perfect, so I advocate doing what works best for you and makes you happiest and most productive.
Being transparent may not be the best way.
Not everyone is wild about my attitude to email. It frustrates me, because I feel that I’m more on top of email than most, but because I’m transparent and set expectations (you’ll typically receive a response within 24 hours, but no promises), if someone wants to they can seize on it as something to complain about (provided they don’t have to provide concrete examples). I think you could check email once a day – maybe less! And, if anything comes up just trot out some excuse like, “oh I was in the zone, I didn’t get to email yet”, or “no, I must have missed that” or “sorry, bunch of meetings”, and get away with it…
Make the most of it while you can.
My job title is “Software Engineer”, not “emailer”. I’m ruthless on email because I’m only interested in it such that it allows me to be a better engineer, or further certain causes (female engineers). Right now, I am not seeing any great problems caused by my attitude to email. In 3 months I’ve missed perhaps 3 things, but am happier/more productive/going home earlier and it’s not clear that short of having my phone beep with every new email I wouldn’t have missed some things anyway. I don’t know how viable this approach will be as I progress. Can a tech-lead check email only once a day? Maybe. Can a manager? Definitely not (yet another excellent reason not to take the management track).
So for now, I’m sticking with it. And enjoying it, because I’m not sure it will be viable forever.
Interesting case-study: I’ve been doing once-a-day on my work inbox but continuing as normal on my personal inbox. Work email status: under control, pretty on top of it. Personal email status: chaos.