• Andrew Wien

Why you check email so much—and how to stop

There are some days where I check email a lot. I get less work done and feel drained at the end of the day. Other days I check email infrequently, get a lot of work done, and feel great at the end.

So why is it so hard to stay out of my inbox?!

The problem that must of us run into is that we’ve unintentionally formed strong habits around checking email. Habits are behaviors that we do automatically, without thinking about it. Naturally, they are hard to change.

Charles Duhigg writes that a habit loop is a cue followed by a routine followed by a reward. The cue reminds us to do the routine in order to get the reward. Why is email such a powerful habit?

  1. The cue: I’m bored. I don’t want to work on a hard task. I’m feeling unproductive. I have any sort of negative emotion and know that all I have to do is….

  2. The routine: Check email. This is exceedingly easy, takes 30 seconds or less, and I can do almost anywhere. And I do this because I might get…

  3. The reward: Oh, the potential excitement of what awaits! Maybe an email from a new client. Or a friend that wants to hang out. Or a discussion at work that I can respond to and immediately feel productive. Even worse- our brain has higher cravings for variable rewards. The uncertainty of what awaits makes us even more hooked.

So great. I have a strong habit around email. Now what?

The goal is to move email checking from a habitual behavior to one that we consciously decide to do EVERY TIME. But how do we prevent ourselves from checking email when we do it without thinking?

Fortunately, technology helps. Try this out for one day and see what you notice:

  1. Decide how long you can go each day without checking email. (e.g. 4 hours, 30 minutes, etc).

  2. Plan out when to check email for the day based on #1 and your meeting schedule, and put these times in your calendar.

  3. Make it hard or impossible to check email outside of these times. You will pull out your phone and see what’s in your inbox. You will go to your inbox on your computer unintentionally to see what is there. The trick is to make sure NOTHING is there. You can use inbox pause tools like Boomerang to help.

Eventually, you will start associating your email checking with NOTHING, as there will be no new email. You’ll notice that you are more productive, feel less drained, and the DECISION to check email or not will become easier and easier. Good luck!

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