Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Get the Email Monkey Off Your Back Today

For many of us, our fiercest opponent in the battle to reclaim our attention span is email. It’s the first thing we check in the morning and the last at night. It sidetracks us throughout our day, thwarting our intentions to complete the task at hand–writing a blog post, for example.

Escaping the email trap can be hard. Many of us have trained our family, friends and co-workers to expect instantaneous responses. If we typically respond lightning quick to emails, not doing so is often grounds for them to call an ambulance.

Many of us will use the excuse that our jobs depend on email. For a very small percentage of people like customer service representatives and EMT’s, this may be true (though I would sooner call an EMT). For most of us though, this is an excuse. Realistically, lag of a few hours on our email response will is not a make-or-break thing. And the benefit of fully paying attention to our tasks will more than outweigh the delay.

Another possible reason we check is neurochemical. Psychology professor Christopher Chabris said this in a NY Times article about the affect of email on our brains:

What the Internet does is stimulate our reward systems over and over with tiny bursts of information (tweets, status updates, e-mails) that act like primary rewards but can be delivered in more varied and less predictable sequences. These are experiences our brains did not evolve to prefer, but like drugs of abuse, they happen to be even better suited than the primary reinforcers to activating the reward system. So if you find yourself stopping every 30 seconds to check your Twitter feed, your brain has no more been rewired than if you find yourself taking a break for ice cream rather than celery. Picking the more rewarding stimulus is something our brains can do perfectly well with the wiring they start out with.

In other words, checking email usually excites our reward systems more than the task at hand. So our environments and our brains push us to be slaves to our inbox.

There are ways out.

Author and LifeEdited judge Tim Ferriss gives some valuable advice for shaking the email monkey. He promotes using an autoresponder to train yourself and others to not constantly check email and rather “batch” it, which means  handling email at an appointed time rather that having it as something peppered throughout the day, pulling at our attention.

Here is a sample transcript he posted on his blog 5 years ago. His message is as, or more, relevant today when smartphone saturation is nearing 100%:

Hi all…

In an effort to increase productivity and efficiency I am beginning a new personal email policy. I’ve recently realized I spend more time shuffling through my inbox and less time focused on the task at hand. It has become an unnecessary distraction that ultimately creates longer lead times on my ever-growing ‘to do’ list.

Going forward I will only be checking/responding to email at 11a and 4p on weekdays. I will try and respond to email in a timely manner without neglecting the needs of our clients and brand identity.

If you need an immediate time-sensitive response… please don’t hesitate to call me. Phones are more fun anyways.

Hopefully this new approach to email management will result in shorter lead times with more focused & creative work on my part. Cheers & here’s to life outside of my inbox!

Tim claims the response from his clients was cheery. This may or may not be the case for many of us. Like anything, it might take some time to train ourselves and others to not constantly send and receive. Anecdotally, a friend of mine regularly uses an autoresponder and I definitely think hard before emailing him.

What is hopeful, as Chabris suggests, is that our need to constantly check email is no more fixed than picking “ice cream rather than celery.” It has been conditioned through practice. It can be unconditioned through practice.

How do you keep the email monkey off your back? Let us know your tips and tools in our comment section.

  • Wynn Williamson

    i’ve followed a similar approach and check my emails 2x or 3x per day as well. I don’t send out an autoresponder because I haven’t really found that to be necessary since I generally answer emails in that day and if anyone ever complains that I didnt respond I just say that I was in a meeting.

    The biggest issues I’ve found is the email notification on my smart phone which was hard to ignore. I now have an android phone and I’ve turned off that notifications (except for What’s App which makes a noise for these messages, which I usually only get from my wife and friends).

    An important point for me as well is that I do not check emails first thing in the morning. When I get up (early) I try to do productive projects first, generally more complex and long term bits. I then “reward myself” by later checking emails. I also try to respond in the day and leave no longer to respond emails. If I have to write a more complex email, I write it down as a To-Do on my GTD hipster cards.