How to Check E-mail Twice a Day… or Once Every 10 Days

198 Comments

If you don’t yet use Twitter, don’t start. It’s pointless e-mail on steroids. I had to laugh when I saw a post by the one-and-only Robert Scoble on the 19th titled “Productivity up 200%, Twitter Down.”

[Postscript: LOL... I've actually started using Twitter to make occasional one-way announcement to readers, but I don't follow anyone or allow pings. "Anyone who wants can join me for a movie at..." doesn't make a very good blog post :)]

E-mail (and all of its Crackberry/digital leash/Twitter cousins) is the largest single interruption in modern life. In a digital world, creating time therefore hinges on minimizing e-mail. The fastest method I’ve found for controlling the e-mail impulse is to set up an autoresponder that indicates you will be checking e-mail twice per day or less. This is an example of “batching” tasks (performing like tasks at set times, between which you let them accumulate), and your success with batching will depend on two factors:

1. Your ability to train others to respect these intervals
and, much more difficult,
2. Your ability to discipline yourself to follow your own rules

Think your boss won’t go for it? You’d be surprised. Here is one example from a SXSW attendee. His two e-mail to me have been combined with a bit of editing for length.

Hey Tim,

Here’s what i took away from your presentation (and put into action!):

I sent out an email to everyone in my division letting them know i’ll only be checking email at 11a & 4p. I’ve included my email down below:

“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! “

So far the response has been very receptive and supportive. Here’s the quick “reply to all” email response i got from our senior operations manager (he oversees 5 radio stations. and most of the people in the building):

“Tim,
AWESOME time management approach!!! I would love to see more people adopt that policy.
-C.”

I’m sticking to it and it’s making my days more productive already. As the days are progressing, more people are “on the bus” with respecting my new email policy and i havent had any snags (even with SXSW going on – and i work in Austin radio, so we’re all swamped this week). However, every single person feels like it just wouldn’t work for them if they did it. (“oh, but i’m on too many mailing lists” or “All i do is work in my email box, i have to.” i’m sure you’ve heard it all before).

As far as your presentation… A major thing i took away is applying the concept of 80/20 to my workflow. I’ve always known i waste a great deal of time on things that ultimately aren’t showing the bulk of my ROI. Hearing you present it in a new light enabled me to start actively weeding out the time wasting clients & processes. I do a lot of work that our interns should be doing. So i’ve begun designating responsibility appropriately, thus freeing up my plate for the more relevant tasks. It will be a slow process, but senior management is on the same page with me.

Cheers,

Tim Duke
KROX & KBPA – Interactive Brand Manager

Here is a shorter autoresponder another attendee successfully implemented:

Thank you for your email! Due to my current workload I am only checking email at 11am and 4pm. If you need anything immediately please call me on my cell so that I can address this important matter with you. Thank you and have a great day!

-Tom

My personal e-mail autoresponder limits me to once per day and indicates “I check e-mail once per day, often in the evening. If you need a response before tomorrow, please call me on my cell.” My business e-mail autoresponder, on the other hand, gives me the option to check email once every 7-10 days.

The real hard part, of course, is keeping yourself away from that damn inbox. Get on a strict low-information diet and focus on output instead of input; your wallet and weekends will thank you for it.

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198 comments on “How to Check E-mail Twice a Day… or Once Every 10 Days

  1. I’ve given this a try in the last 2 weeks. Here are some of my thoughts.

    1. I already have my productivity systems like GTD in place so this works well in them, I even had a few people asking about it. Thing is, I realize I much prefer getting emails then I do phone calls. So what can I do about the “If you need an immediate time-sensitive response, please don’t hesitate to call me XXXXXXXX so that I can address this important matter with you.” I don’t want phone calls!

    2. I thought of putting “send me a text message at XXXX XXXX” which is better, but I prefer emails instead of text messages and I tend to note them and then leave them…

    Or are we suggesting here than most won’t be sending/calling me anyway? Then what do we do about those ppl who consider their issue important but arn’t really high on my priority? I still don’t want their calls!

    Am I being to demanding?

  2. “If you don’t yet use Twitter, don’t start. It’s pointless e-mail on steroids.”

    I read that line and then, on the same page saw the link “Follow Tim on Twitter”.

    How can that be? Is Tim starting to ignore his own advice?

  3. Hello,

    Is there a tutorial on how to setup outlook to only check e-mails twice a day? I can’t seem to figure it out. I am so excited to try this technique at work. My day seems to be bogged down by e-mails and I can’t wait to feel ‘free’ again. Only a quarter of the way through the book and this is becoming a life-changing experience. This is totally against the methods that I was tought in business school. Can’t wait to get outside the box where I feel most comfortable :) Thanks so much for this amazing read.

    Kind regards,

    Nick

  4. My entire network has been out of control (email, twitter, rss, etc) and I’ve been reading a ton of articles to get some ideas.

    I really like this idea, and I actually set it up tonight. I’m really hoping this will be a life changing step for me. We are about to have our first child and I want to change some of my habits before he arrives. I have an ipad, iphone, macbook air, imac, and they are all beeping, chirping, or notifying me of something that it wants me to attend to. It’s become out of control.

    The google reader is another one for me that is hard to break. I check it all day, all the time, and I end up starring tons of “stuff’ so that I develop a back pile of “starred” items I feel I can’t ever get caught up on (as if the info really means anything…..ha,ha). It is going to be so hard to go from getting a message in “real time” to only a few times a day, I really hope I can do it.

    I have also found that my use of technology has caused me to set unrealistic expectations of other people (I think that everyone should ping me back as soon as they get my email. I want “real time) but many people don’t communicate like that, and I don’t want to set the expectation that they have to. People often say, “Not everyone is attached at the hip to all of those devices. ”

    I also want to be present where I am. I don’t want to think I always have to be checking rss, email, twitter, facebook, etc all the time. Many times I just want to watch a movie with my wife, or go to dinner without checking all my “pings’ non-stop. It’s simply not healthy. I hope your advice will help!

    I’d be interested to hear any feedback you have on controlling the urge for “information.” Seriously google reader is like the black hole of information that actually has zero importance, but I feel like I’ll be so out of touch if I don’t read my feeds. Another struggle is that by the time I read all my feeds, and click refresh, they have all updated again, so it’s like a black hole. Not good.

    Thanks again for this advice!

  5. My opinion is that the first step to successfully reducing the number of times you check your email is to put your “self” in check. You must remove the stress and anxiety from your life and be willing to release some control over the social messages we all receive on a daily basis. Once you accept relinquishing control then you can establish a consistent routine of returning emails at set time intervals. Hope this advice resonates with some people out there!

  6. hey Tim, great book, enjoyed the article, mentioned it in my post today on the Sync Blog (Canada’s # Technology Blog) in reference to a new app for Gmail called courteous.ly, the auto-reply works way better.
    Cheers

  7. Given my current type of work, I need to implement this policy for myself. I won’t set an auto-reply but will let know my boss about this attempt, so that at least he knows if there is anything urgent he can always skype me.
    I use online gmail for work, and many of my documents are in the email, so I am exposed to the browser the whole day. So blocking the site (i.e keepmeout.com won’t work in this case). Any tools to aid discipline the checking inbox? Maybe a schedule reminder?

  8. To check the mail twice a day is not a big deal. We can easily do it by maintaining our busy schedule. The best way is that you must check your mails as soon as you sign in to office and at that time you should only go for checking your business related mail. And at home when you are done with your supper, then you can check your friends and family member’s mails. according to me this is the proper way to check your mail twice a day.

  9. I work as a Customer Service Manager/Cube Monkey, and tried this immediately after reading the chapter in 4HWW.

    Within 48 hours our CFO said “That is horrible customer service” nixed it. Pretty sweet huh? So I created a LinkedIn poll to show how unoffensive it was. Received 100% support from the poll.

    Cheers,
    Nathan MF Crooks
    You know what the MF stands for.

    • French it company atos banned email internally (not externally). It really is inefficient when information could be shared via knowledge management (wiki, sharepoint, other social tools that would fit the situation).

  10. So tell me, of those of you who moan about Tim’s ‘method’ of clearing your life of the email checking addiction, how many of you that disagree are living the life Tim is? Hmmmmm? Remember the 80′s any of you?, there WAS life before computers and even mobile phones diseased our lives and sanity. People used to call the landline ‘when it was important’ and if not, they sent ‘snail mail’ and expected a response some time in the not too far away future. Business still went on, people made money, the pace was fast but controllable, we had answering machines for the landline when we were too busy to answer the phone right? People didn’t complain then and why should they now. Seems all of you that are having trouble (listen to yourselves will you???? really!) have no life goals during email reading time as it is ALL IMPORTANT. Tim, great advice mate, I guess you are on a beach somewhere, I’ll expect a response to this some time in the next month. Relax people, night will come, eventually (as emails will be read, eventually.) Cheers all, Aussie David.

  11. I love this idea and am starting straight away.

    As a newbie copywriter, self-employed for the first time, I really want to instil best practice from the beginning. I’m so guilty of checking over and over for replies to bids for work and it’s just this drip-drip of constant distraction tinged with disappointment – Does not make for a good creative flow!

  12. I use Outlook 2007. I am trying to figure out a way to have emails that I receive “released” at certain times. For example, check for e-mails at 7am, 11am, 1pm, and 3pm. Meanwhile, I would like e-mail that I send to go out immediately. Additionally, I would like e-mails that come from specific people (such as my boss) to come through immediately.
    I think this would help in not being such a slave to e-mails – but I am not sure if Outlook has the functionality to do this.

    Thoughts? Thanks.

    • It’s going to be a combination of self-discipline – you literally shutting down your Outlook program unless and until you need to SEND an email, and you using a product called AwayFind http://awayfind.com/ that allows you to specify special alerts from domains, important addresses etc. – in essence create a White List.

    • Just set the send and recieve advanced option in Outlook to only send every n minutes, up to 9999 :), or if you go with the twice a day option every 200 minutes.

  13. I also use outlook 2007 for all my emails and it is amazing how much email comes through. I will look into adding an autoresponder and see how that goes. I love the idea of checking email twice a day, but it is hard to adhere to it.

  14. I had to adopt a more passive-aggressive approach because my employer was a startup (we were just acquired by a large computer company, so that attitude will have to change) and there is still a premium placed on heroics (i.e., “Drop everything and do it now!”).

    I’m a software engineer with a lot of my own work to do, but I also handle some escalation cases, and it torques me off when I get a case and then the support engineer wants to schedule a GoToMeeting for the same day: “I’ve got the customer on the phone, can you look at it now?”

    I’ve managed to train people to use Exchange for scheduling meetings, and at the start of every day, I put in a big 12-hour private appointment: this results in my schedule being booked solid for the day.

    This way, if someone wants to schedule a meeting, it has to be tomorrow.

    So far, it’s working well: I don’t get dropped into a support issue without sufficient time to read the case and get caught up on the issue.

  15. Hi Tim, I love your approach towards email. I have tried your approach now for three weeks (checking mail once per day @ 11pm). My self discipline is starting to work out. The reactions from my colleagues vary a lot however. Most are positive. Especially in the first week. Now I have some colleagues that are starting to get really pissed off because of my auto-response and are steering towards a conflict situation if I do not turn it off. Do you have any suggestions in addition to the suggestion in your book to offer to help to create a mail rule for them?

    • Apply Tim’s 80/20 rule i,e if 80% of your colleagues are supportive of you new approach to time management concentrate maintaining effective relationships with them. As for the other 20% certainly don’t cc them into anything to avoid the commencement of a new email trail.

  16. I am currently investigating which email triage strategy is more efficient and satisfying for users out of continuously checking email or only checking them once or twice a day as my final year psychology dissertation.

    Does anybody know of any scientific publications, websites or anything else concerning either this or the effectiveness of other email management strategies? At the moment I am struggling to find anything more than a few articles that are only somewhat related and any help would be greatly appreciated.

    Also if anybody would be intersted in participating in my study let me know and I can provide further details, if not sorry for the spam/self promotion.

    • Hi Adam -

      I write about the topic you’re doing your dissertation on (and similar issues). You can reach me at adam at digitalminimalism dot com

      Best,

      Adam

  17. I’m a third year psychology student and for my dissertation I am conducting a study investigating the effect of different email strategies on productivity, including testing a strategy somewhat related to the one discussed in this article.
    Sorry about this self promotion but I thought this could be mutually beneficial as the results of your email efficiency with different strategies will be made available to you.
    If you are interested and want some more information let me know.

  18. Hi Tim,

    I just finished reading the 4-Hour Workweek, and I wanted to thank you. The book is brilliant, and the concepts resonate with me. I had already been heading down this path before I found your book, but once I read it, it just solidified everything and reassured me that what I was doing was right.

    I’ve been also working towards much better email efficiency.

    Thanks again,
    Brad

  19. Depending on where we work, what kind of work we have, or whether we work at all (maybe some of us are students), we’ve got to adjust the idea to our lifestyle. Some people have decided to remove internet from their homes altogether (I’ve tried that), some people try to set limits to internet or computer use through “SelfRestraint” softwares. Others create email checking frequency policies. Other’s work is AT computer, checking and answering e-mails. To each their own. I think it’s about experimenting and finding what suits your work ethic, personality, and productivity needs. Let’s keep firing the ideas.

  20. Yes, Tim, we used to be able to get lots of work done before email!

    I try NOT to respond immediately to every email because otherwise that tells the person I will respond within seconds and then they send more. And on and on and…..

    I do scan the subjects every hour to see what emails have come in and I delete spam beforehand to make less clutter. When I do carve out time to read them I make sure I print out the more detailed and respond appropriately after I clear out all of the unimportant, less needy emails.

    Also, I have found people will put more information in initial emails if they know I only read email occasionally. Unfortunately, there are email letter “bombs” where someone is demanding I contact them right away and they are disappointed when I don’t react within minutes of receipt.

    Yes, we used to get more done before emails…..but we had less information.

  21. A good auto responder a colleague used coming back to work after two weeks on holidays was “I will be too busy to read all the emails left after two weeks away (approx 400) so therefore I will delete them all. Anything that is very important and not been sorted out in the meantime please resend your email”
    Excellent!