This post was updated on April 29, 2021
Conventional wisdom says that checking email first thing in the morning hijacks your productivity for the day. But if you don’t check it, maybe you’ll miss an important change to your schedule or a critical piece of information. Like with most topics, the “sound bite” isn’t the real answer, and in this case, there is certainly a middle ground.
In most cases, I find that not checking email first thing in the morning is the fastest path to improved productivity, with some caveats. Don’t check first thing from a desktop computer. However, if you quickly skim email first thing in the morning on a smartphone, you can note any critical information, probably without getting sucked into writing lengthy responses and derailing your priorities for the day.
This whole concept of when you check email during the day doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all answer. But as a productivity trainer for the past two decades, I can tell you that getting this habit right can make a significant difference. I would even go so far as to say that for many of my clients, refraining from answering emails first thing in the morning is the key to unlocking their ability to achieve more significant results with far less stress.
Checking Email First Thing Makes You Reactive All Day
The reason you shouldn’t check email first thing in the morning is because email is inherently a reactive tool. It delivers messages to you that are chock-full of other people’s priorities. It’s full of other people inviting you to complete tasks for their projects, attend their meetings, and weigh in on their priorities.
It’s all too easy to spend your entire day checking every email as it arrives, thinking that checking an email off your list gets you closer to “completing” your work. But the truth is, your email inbox constantly refills. Constantly.
And when you do take time to answer email first thing in the morning, it squeezes out time for proactive work. For most jobs, it’s the proactive work you do that makes you feel productive and accomplished at the end of your day. (The exception here is a job in something like customer support, where the position may require you to be almost entirely reactive.) Discover how to measure your own productivity in this post.
Set the Tone for the Day
The problem with starting your day in reactive mode is that it sets the tone for the rest of the day; it increases the odds that you’ll spend the whole day being reactive. You might tell yourself, “I’ll just answer this one email from my colleague because if I don’t, she’ll think I’m not responsive.”
But once you’re sitting at a desktop computer with a full-sized keyboard, it’s hard to resist going down the email rabbit hole. You might send off that quick response to your colleague and then check a few additional emails. While you’re doing that, your colleague replies to your response and asks you to please—please!—help out with one quick task right away. Before you know it, the morning passes and you’ve done nothing proactive to pursue your own most significant results.
By the time lunch rolls around, you feel as if you’re “behind the eight ball,” which depletes your energy. Had you only resisted responding to that first email, you would have had the time and opportunity to make progress on your own important items. This would have left you energized by the accomplishment. Instead, now you’re panicked because you feel even farther behind.
Do This Test to Find Your Baseline
You may be convinced that while other people have trouble staying out of the email rabbit hole, your willpower is superior. If this is your take, I urge you to try this test:
For one week, go about your regular routine but keep a daily log of what you accomplish each workday. In addition, jot down one adjective that describes how you feel at the end of the day. For example, “tired” or “stressed” or “excited”.
The following week, resolve to not check email first thing in the morning. Not at all. Not on a desktop or a mobile phone. Again, keep a daily log of what you accomplish during your day, and again, list at least one adjective to describe how you feel.
The Email Test: Analyze Your Results
At the end of the two weeks, examine your logs. During which week did you accomplish more of your significant results? During which week did you feel more positive and energized?
This test can give you a baseline understanding of what’s possible in an ideal environment. However, in reality, you may need to check email first thing in the morning to find out plans for the day, or any true emergency tasks that you need to add to your list last minute. I do this myself.
Fortunately, there are guidelines for checking email in the morning that help prevent your productivity from getting hijacked by the act. If you get in the habit of checking your email in the morning in this particular way, I’m confident your overall productivity will increase—and quite quickly, too. (For more information about how to change habits, be sure to read my post about the key to changing habits.)
3 Guidelines for Checking Email First Thing In the Morning
Follow these guidelines for checking email first thing in the morning, and you’ll have claimed the productivity sweet spot: You’ll know the important information you need and you’ll still focus on pursuing your own most significant results throughout the day.
- Check Email on a smartphone – If you receive your work email on a smartphone, this is the ideal device to use if you need to check your email first thing in the morning. The small format will help you resist the temptation to get too involved in your messages, and become distracted from the important tasks you may have planned for the morning.
- Note Your Environment – If you are going into a large office, you may not even need to check your smartphone in the morning, as you’re more likely to get notified by other colleagues if something critical comes up and you haven’t read it in an email message. However, if you are self-employed and/or working from home, you’ll likely need to do a quick skim of messages on your phone before starting your day. If absolutely necessary, send brief responses only to the messages that truly require an early morning response.
- Explicitly Inform Others – It’s a good idea to tell friends and colleagues of your new approach to productivity and enlist them in supporting you. Let them know that they may not receive an early morning response when they email you, but you’ll be sure to get back to them in a timely manner.
How to Reverse Expectations
But what about other people beyond your immediate co-workers and family? You may have already “trained” customers or clients that you always respond to emails immediately. So now what can you do to reverse that expectation?
It can be very helpful to add a new line to your email signature that reads, “I only check email periodically throughout the day. If your message is of an urgent or time-sensitive nature, please call me.” This explicitly reminds those you interact with frequently that you will not be responding right away.
Remember, it’s not about wishing and hoping that everyone else will do things differently, but rather about setting up the circumstances so that you support your own productivity, rather than sabotage it.
But Wait! This Won’t End Well!
There’s a difference between skimming messages on your smartphone and answering them in detail. When I first introduce my clients to the idea of not responding to messages in the morning with any more than a few words, many of my clients feel anxious.
“What if my boss emails? Am I supposed to just ignore it?” And then there are people like real estate agents who tell me, “My business depends on my immediate response. I can’t lose business because of this!”
So I’d like to address both of these concerns right now:
Fear of Talking to the Boss about Email
I’ve found that, in most cases, a frank conversation with the boss about email will work well. Not every boss and not every time. But the vast majority have the same goals as their direct reports: namely, to increase productivity in service of the company’s most important results.
With this in mind, take a deep breath and then explain to your boss that working proactively and avoiding distractions first thing in the morning is essential to your productivity. This is why you prefer not to respond to email first thing in the morning.
Say that instead of checking email first thing in the morning, you plan to have designated times during the day to focus on email. “This way, I can give more thoughtful responses when I do answer,” you can explain. Then add, “You can always reach me by phone for anything important in the morning.”
The truth is that people will think twice before calling you on the phone, while nobody gives a second thought to potentially disrupting you via email.
Fear of Losing Clients Over “Delayed” Replies
I often get pushback from clients in competitive industries or professions about how, if they don’t respond to messages immediately, they will lose the potential customer to their competitor. Yet I find this doesn’t happen.
The potential client is contacting you either because they researched you and chose you, or because you left a message and they are interested enough in your offer to respond. So they’ll wait. Not forever, but at least an hour or two! And existing clients have too much invested to leave you for not responding immediately. People often tell me they are convinced that everyone wants an immediate response to emails. My advice? Question that assumption.
With this in mind, you’ll have better success with client recruitment and retention if you play the long game. Put your productivity first; focus your attention on your bigger-picture goals first thing in the morning, and then respond to emails thoughtfully at a designated time or times during your day.
Checking Email in the Morning Hijacks Attention
The bottom line is that checking email first thing in the morning can hijack your attention. And your attention is the most valuable asset you have for achieving your most important goals.
Many people don’t realize that you can build up your attention management skills to make them more resistant to distractions. And building attention management skills allows you to be more proactive than reactive, which is a key to productivity.
If you’re interested in learning about how to manage your attention, check out my online, video-based Empowered Productivity™ course. In this course, I teach you the tools you need to accomplish far more with far less stress.
And if you do check email first thing in the morning, as I do on my smartphone, follow the guidelines. You’ll find that when you learn to control what you pay attention to, you can really begin to get back in the driver’s seat of your life!
I was internally changed by your brief session several months ago and your post are so very helpful. I would love to know what you are currently suggesting as reading and areas in our world to focus attention on.
That’s very sweet, Joi, thank you so much for saying so! My Empowered Productivity series of books is a great place to get more information! The first book in the series is Attention Management: attentionmanagementbook.com. Thanks for reading and commenting!