My work as a coach in the digital marketing space is inextricably interwoven with email. For reasons of sanity and streamlining, I prefer if I receive any and all communication from clients through email. Even when potential clients send me inquiries over social media, the next step is nudging them towards following up with me via email.
But there’s a catch. Email can become a trap for us to sink into, without realizing the pitfalls that come with it. In the last 4 years as a coach, I’ve learned that it’s better for my own growth and progress if I stopped checking email first thing in the morning.
It Takes You Away from Creating
This was a lesson that I learned the hard way. It wasn’t easy to tear myself away from the lure of the email inbox, first thing in the morning. At the back of my mind were the niggling questions:
Who emailed me when I was asleep?
Did they respond to that mail I sent out last week?
Did I hear back from that publication where I submitted my piece?
Did a client send me an ‘urgent’ query?
When your brain wakes up to this kind of Pavlovian response to emails, it also does something more damaging — it takes you away from the joy of creating.
Most of us — and I’d say this irrespective of whether you’re a morning/night person- find that we create our best work first thing in the morning. It’s why Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages are so popular.
If we choose to fill our most creative space with email, it’s detrimental to the well of creativity. Our creative time is sacred and requires protection at all costs.
Email is Reactive
Have you noticed something interesting about the act of checking your email? It places you in fight or flight mode. In his book, A World Without Email: Find Focus and Transform the Way you Work Forever, Cal Newport explains the concept of the hyperactive hive mind. He explores how the human brain is wired to constantly communicate, respond and share information in a workplace culture that promotes speed over intentional consumption.
When we are constantly reacting to information — whether that’s via email or Slack Messenger- where do we get the time and energy to do the work that is meaningful for us?
Email also creates this false sense of urgency where there is none. Add to that the plague of the instant gratification generation which relies on lightning responses to mundane queries and you have yourself a potent cocktail of reaction and cortisol.
It Fosters a False sense of Missing Out
“Opening your email inbox as soon as you turn on your computer might make you feel connected. At the same time looking at all of those emails destroys your productivity, divides your attention, and overwhelms you with stress. But, it prevents you from feeling like you’re “missing out” … and so you do it again.”
James Clear, author of Atomic Habits
*Cited from How to Break a Bad Habit & Replace it with a Good One
This sense of missing out is both harmful to your brain and damaging to your ability to create. Email/Slack/Instant Messaging apps/ social media – all of these are designed to keep you in the hyperactive loop of stimulus and response.
Plus you don’t want to be that employee who doesn’t respond to emails right away. I mean, how would that look on your appraisal report at the end of the year?
But the truth is that missing out is both recommended and highly beneficial when it comes to the creative mindset. When we consciously choose delayed gratification over the pleasure principle, we train our brain to exercise restraint and be comfortable with a more relaxed approach to work and communication.
Context Switching is Costly
One study by RescueTime, the productivity tool, estimates that most people cannot go more than 6 minutes without checking email or social media, or instant messaging services.
This form of context switching is so costly that in the place of potential deep work, we are sacrificing our brains and their immense capacity at the altar of responding to demands outside of our control.
It takes the brain an average of 25 minutes to get back on track after every interruption. 25 minutes! That’s an incredible amount of time you’re squandering when you could be creating something wonderful and high impact.
In the mornings, when your brain is active and alert, why would you want to subject it to that burden?
A More Mindful Approach to Email
So how do we approach checking emails with mindfulness? It’s not that hard, but it does take a bit of conscious effort if we’re willing to step back and reflect on the role of email – a communication tool – and just use it as such.
Remove the email application from your phone
Resolutely refuse to download your work email on your phone. If it’s within reach, chances are you’re going to pick it up. When you do, you’ll scroll to the email app. Then it’s almost instinctive for you to check for updates.
Remove the app itself and you’ve removed the temptation to check email involuntarily.
Do other things instead
Don’t start your day checking and responding to emails. Trust me on this. It’s not that important. It’s not life and death. It’s just email-checking.
Instead, create a list of tasks that tap into your creative/ energetic side and let them take priority. Here’s a suggestion of things you could do in place of checking email (or your phone) in the mornings.
Reading a Book
Writing in your Journal
Writing a Blog post
Cooking or prepping for breakfast
Going for a morning walk
Practise your music
Read the newspaper
Savour your mug of coffee or tea
Walk your pet
Schedule your email check-ins
Set aside a block of time (maybe 15 minutes) in the middle of your workday, after you have finished some work that required your creative best. You can schedule yet another block later in the day to catch up with email again.
And, as a rule of thumb, try and avoid responding to emails over the weekend. Or at least do it towards the end of Sunday so that you’ve spent more time with yourself/your family without the pressure of email.
Approach the task in a relaxed manner
Before you open an email, take a slow, deep breath. It’s an email. It’s not a ticking time bomb, but most people are anxious when they check their emails because they are wired to do so with expectations.
Respond, Archive, or Delete (RAD)
- When you open your email inbox, remind yourself that you have three options before you: Respond, Archive, or Delete. I call it RAD for short.
- When opening an email, remind yourself that this is your time and your pace. Gently look through the inbox and sort the emails into the respond/archive/delete category first. Then, you can settle down to writing responses. I rarely archive emails that require a response. They stay in my inbox until I get around to responding. The best part is that I don’t worry about inbox zero anymore.
- If an email requires a detailed response, take your time to craft a thoughtful one. Write with care, picture the other person smiling when they open your email. Make them feel heard and acknowledged.
Imagine how you feel when you get a response from someone you look up to; that’s the feeling every individual has when they open an email addressed to them. Make it count.
Doing this once or twice a day ensures that you aren’t tied to your inbox. For that reason, I usually recommend only checking your email on your computer and not on your phone.
Your mornings are sacred and hold the key to how your entire day will unfold. If you fill your mornings with demands from other people, you lose the immense potential for creating something of incredible value.
Let your email inbox wait. I promise you’ll survive perfectly fine without glancing at it as soon as you’re awake.