How to Stop Checking E-mail on the Evenings and Weekends

51 Comments

[Reposted from Lifehacker, where I guest posted this article this morning.]

Investment bankers aren’t known for their impulse control.

Several global firms in Zurich don’t allow their bankers to check email more than twice per day. The reason is simple: the more they check email, the more compelled they feel to send email. Technologist Robert Scoble has said that for each email he sends, he gets 1.75 to 2 messages in return. This phenomenon highlights the unscalable nature of most time-management approaches: striving to do more just produces increasingly more to do.

Fifty email messages beget 100, which beget 200 and so on. It’s impossible to manage this with a results-by-volume (or frequency) approach. There are two cornerstone behavioral changes for reversing this trend: check email less frequently (so we send fewer messages) and send fewer messages when we do check (so we trigger fewer exchanges).

Here are eight concrete tips and services for digital minimalism that can help eliminate—as a start—compulsive inboxing during the evenings and weekends:

Treat all of them as short experiments and customize.

1. “Batch” email at set times.

Have an email-checking schedule and do not deviate. There is an inevitable task-switching cost otherwise—U.S. office workers spend 28% of their time switching between tasks due to interruption, and 40% of the time, an interrupted task is not resumed within 24 hours. Use template autoresponders to alert people of your email schedule and encourage them to call if something needs faster attention. The “urgent” email-to-call conversion is usually less than 10%.

This gives you breathing room to focus on predefined to-do’s instead of responding to manufactured emergencies and ending the day with nothing to show for it.

Alternative approaches include appending your signature with your email schedule, having only email from certain contacts forwarded to your Crackberry/PDA, and—if a manager of a small group—setting an inbox checking schedule for internally-generated email. Ensure that your first batch is around 10 or 11 a.m. and never first thing in the morning, as you want a meaningful volume (1/4-1/3rd of the daily total), and you should accomplish at least one critical to-do before going into reactive mode.

2. Send and read email at different times.

Go offline and respond to all email from a local program such as Outlook or Mail to avoid having the outgoing flow interrupted by immediate responses.

Ever noticed how effective it is to respond to your email while on an airplane? Manufacture that environment by going offline to batch send.

3. Don’t scan email if you can’t immediately fix problems encountered.??

One simple example: don’t scan the inbox on Friday evening or over the weekend if you might encounter work problems that can’t be addressed until Monday. This is the perfect way to ruin a weekend with preoccupation. Remember that just as income has no value without time, time has no value without attention.

4. Don’t BIF people during off-hours.

“BIF” stands for “before I forget” and refers to emails sent on evenings or weekends out of fear of forgetting a to-do or follow-up. This sets a mutual expectation of 24/7 work hours and causes a plethora of problems. There are a number of better alternatives. First, use a service like Jott.com instead that allows you to send voice reminders via cell, which are transcribed and sent to your inbox or someone else’s. If to someone else’s, be sure to add “no need to respond until [next work hours].” Second, if you prefer low-tech, externalize follow-ups and to-do’s in a small notebook like a Moleskine instead of entering the “bet you can’t eat just one” inbox.

5. Don’t use the inbox for reminders or as a to-do list.

Related to 4 above. Don’t mark items as “unread,” star them, or otherwise leave them in the inbox as a constant reminder of required actions. This just creates visual distraction while leading you to evaluate the same items over and over. Put them into a calendar (or Moleskine or other capturing system) for follow-up and archive the email, even if that calendar item is just “Respond to 2/10 email from Suzie.” [From Gina at Lifehacker: See the "Trusted Trio" system for moving email messages out of your inbox and into one of three places: Archive, Hold (calendar item for a later date), or Follow-Up (your to-do list.)]

6. Set rules for email-to-phone escalation.

One Senior VP in a Fortune 500 company recently told me that he’s established a simple policy with his direct reports that has cut email volume by almost 40%: once a decision generates more than four emails total in a thread, someone needs to pick up the phone to resolve the issue.

7. Before writing an email, ask yourself: “what problem am I trying to solve?” or “what is my ideal outcome?”

Unclear purpose, usually a symptom of striving to be busy instead of productive, just requires later clarification from all parties and multiplies back-and-forth volume. Be clear in desired results or don’t hit that Send button

8. Learn to make suggestions instead of asking questions.

Stop asking for suggestions or solutions and start proposing them. Begin with the small things. Rather than asking when someone would like to meet next week, propose your ideal times and second choices. If someone asks, “Where should we eat?”, “What movie should we watch?”, “What should we do tonight?”, or anything similar, do not reflect it back with “Well, what/when/where do you want to…?” Offer a solution. Stop the back and forth and make a decision. Practice this in both personal and professional environments. Here are a few lines that help (my favorites are the first and last):

“Can I make a suggestion?”
“I propose…”
“I’d like to propose…”
“I suggest that… what do you think?”
“Let’s try… and then try something else if that doesn’t work.”

Remember: in email, the small things are the big things. If you can cut an exchange from six to three email messages, that’s a 50% reduction in your inbox volume over time. This can make the difference between working all the time and leaving the office (both physically and mentally) at 5 p.m.

Less is more.

###

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Posted on: February 18, 2008.

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51 comments on “How to Stop Checking E-mail on the Evenings and Weekends

  1. A small note to add to point 5: Google Calendar will send text reminders to your cell phone. You can toggle this feature for any given event, I think. Putting a reminder there is faster than sending yourself an email, and it will more reliably reach you wherever you are, if it’s really that important.

    Like

  2. I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Peter Quinn

    Like

  3. Its a learning process for both you and everyone you deal with. I personally like the email signature Tim talked about saying that you respond only at certain times. That way people can ring if they need to…but it in the long run, its improves your efficiency. I was always stuck in the trap of switching between tasks and forcing myself to get re-focussed. But this really helps me as well as setting designated times for recreational surfing. I feel so much accomplished when I leave too

    Like

  4. Tim

    You have identified (and offered remedies) to an insidious workplace issue. These technologies that can liberate us, have a habit of actually sucking the “free time” out of our lives.

    Since taking a leaf out of your book and practicing a more disciplined approach to email, phone calls and general interruptions my productivity has skyrocketed along with my free time. As the owner of a business I now spend mornings away from the office to concentrate on whatever is important (work ideas, thinking, exercise, my family). I usually check my emails for the first time around 11am, alerting me of any urgent actions that may be required (and usually rapidly delegated). Upon arrival at office I have already cleared my inbox and can sit down to work solidly on the most productive items on my to do list. I generally don’t accept interruptions til then. Once I have completed necessary tasks, I will return calls, check with staff and do one more email check to clear the box for the day. Then its quickly out the door to my next non-work activity.

    This new approach has changed my life. Now if I could find a way to implement it for my staff, I would be close to bottling workplace gold.

    Any thoughts?

    Like

  5. Good list. OK, so this might be obvious, but how about this one?: don’t open your email during weekends (or better yet, don’t turn on the computer).

    Another idea, which you’ve encouraged, it to have so much awesome stuff going down that email is the last thing you’re thinking about. That’s my favorite :-)

    Thanks Tim,
    Clay

    ###

    Hi Clay,

    Point #2 is key. If people have to choose between boredom or feeling productive (even if they aren’t), they’ll choose the latter. Thanks for the comment!

    Tim

    Like

  6. Wow. Great ideas to prevent email from becoming your job. Points 7 & 8 are tremendous time and hassle savers, (not to mention terrific ways to become a bit more assertive, in a nice way)and go along with the “no-complaining” manifesto. And no BIFing, if it’s not important enough to remember/write down/message yourself, it’s not important.

    Like

  7. Tim

    I just bought your book over the weekend and I got to say it is pretty interesting. It only took me two days to finish. I really didn’t expect much out of the book but it definitely woke me up. I’m only 17 right now but this e-mail monster is a growing problem and I have to say you pretty much made my life peaceful again.

    I won’t reveal any of the other things that you wrote but just keep it up.

    Like

  8. Tim, I have a massive time savings idea for email that may not have occurred to a young guy like you. Many folks of my generation, especially men, NEVER LEARNED TO TYPE. I watch every day as these folks sit at their keyboards and hunt and peck as they painfully send emails. By just picking up the phone, or using the high tech approach of voice recognition software, the time savings these folks could achieve would be tremendous.

    PS. Love your blog (even the break dancing stuff).

    ###

    Hi Alan,

    This is a very, very important point and will be the subject of a future post I’ve been planning for some time. Good call :)

    Tim

    Like

  9. Information overflow, epsecially e-mail overload, is a problem for everyone know.

    Some great ideas here Tim, and not just for nights and weekends.

    One problem I’m hearing more and more about (and personally experiencing): people in other time zones expecting you to work and be responsive during their time zones… to the point where work is becoming 24 hours a day. Tim’s suggestions: “Check email only 2x per day”, and “use an autoresponder” (to set expectations) can be the start of a great solution to that problem.

    David

    Like

  10. so Tim, what is your latest project manager or organizer software or CRM? Do you use a PDA? Any recommendations?

    I’m afraid you’re going to say to minimize the info intake to the point I don’t need these tools, but I think a CRM is much better than just email since I can see the history of anyone I deal with, all in one spot. And with project management software I can update a to-do list for employees and clients rather than random emails where I have to restate the main topic first.

    as always, your insights are valued!
    ~V

    ###

    Hi Victory,

    I use a Palm Z22 for contacts and address book, and I use Google Docs and PBWiki for sharing documents, which acts as my CRM (or project management) tool.

    Hope that helps!

    Tim

    Like

  11. Hi Tim
    I’ve just done the “empty your inbox” exercise Gina at Lifehacker has developed and it feels GOOD!

    I’m late to the game (47) but taking focussed positive action is like getting a shot of adrenalin.

    Cheers matey.

    Like

  12. Tim I thought you were a con man who got lucky with a best-seller because he had a catchy title. But this post is real quality and I commend you for it. I’ve experienced exactly what you describe and now check my mail once a day because of your “low info diet” advice. it really does work and its great you have some stats in your article ti support your points – stats that are liklely to be real. You’d go all the way to being top quality if you referenced your stats to quality research. Well done Tim. Outsourcing rocks too – have freed up my time for more important stuff. Found Indian outsourcing unreliable though so have used local expertise.

    Like

  13. Tim IMHO, of late you’ve started posting too frequently. The articles lacks the punch the had a while back.

    ###

    Hi Andre,

    Thanks for the comment. I’m sorry to hear this — it seems that feelings cut both ways on the frequency issue. Some people like the more frequent postings, while others prefer the much more infrequent postings. I’m experimenting with a number of different variables right now and have some (I think) interesting posts coming up. That said, excluding a few self-indulgent posts here and there (V-day, etc.) that I need to write just to keep this entertaining for me, I’m personally quite happy with most posts.

    I’d love to hear what you think is lacking specifically, as this will help me provide better content.

    Cheers,

    Tim

    Like

  14. Hi Tim, great article. This was one of my favorite chapters in your book :-)

    I do have one question. How do you deal with email from fans who write to give compliments on your work? Do you respond? From a fan’s perspective it strengthens the bond when they get a personal response & they feel like you’ve read what they had to say, but it is not fair to you if you receive hundreds of those.

    I ask because I am in a similar situation (although smaller volume than what you have to deal with, I am sure) and I resent the expectation of a response such emails create, even though I am of course flattered.

    Outsourcing is not justified to me yet, as the volume of work would be small and sporadic, and it is not really for work – just my hobby; and frankly it feels a bit impersonal. And that’s the opposite of the reason a fan would write. They want a personal touch. But still, I find this form of distraction too counter-productive.

    Do you have any advice on how… not to respond… while still making your fans feel appreciated and giving them the feeling of personal touch?

    ###

    Hi IS,

    This is a tough one for anyone who gets fan mail. In my case, the volume just doesn’t permit me to personally respond to all, so I have my virtual assistant reply to most with a sincere thank youl. I do, however, read nearly all of them and respond to a hand full.

    Hope that helps!

    Tim

    Like

  15. Thanks for the heads up on these tools Tim, I just browsed through some of them and I think I will start implementing them. I also, wanted to let you know that the forum has some really cool peeps on there. It is not like most forums, these guys are actually trying to do something to improve the quality of their lives. Impressive!

    Jose Castro-Frenzel

    Like

  16. Don’t want to miss a personal email over the weekend? (But also don’t want businss cluttering your free time?)

    Solution: Set up a personal email account completely separate from your business email, and make your friends and family use it. (Sometimes a lame excuse such as “just found out that IT is reading all of our corporate email” can help reinforce.)

    This one tip (from 4HWW and/or Lifehacker?) has saved me countless hours of inattention in the past 6 months. (See point #3 above.) Best wishes!

    Like

  17. As a response to Adam’s post above, Google calendar does have the reminder feature but doesn’t have a specific place to specify a phone number to send a txt to. And sending yourself another “email” would be a bit counter productive to number 5. Also who wants to add another email box aka their phone.

    Setting a limit to email responses is a must as well. In my company if there is more than 3 “ping pong” responses, I will either pick up the phone or walk over and talk to the person. Its just to easy for people to respond with a one line question or answer just to get it out of their Inbox or work queue.

    Tim – What are you thoughts on inter-office communications, a lot of these could apply IMO. Do you think that Owners could actually setup rules in their offices such as these, and would it increase productivity or potentially anger employees?

    Great post!

    Like

  18. Ok I had to laugh when I re-read your post mentioned here about templates… “If you don’t yet use Twitter, don’t start. It’s pointless e-mail on steroids.”

    As all of you can see to your right, Tim is now using Twitter… What made you change your mind??

    ###

    Hi John,

    LOL… here’s the explanation: I disagree how most people use it compulsively and as an additional interruption. I don’t allow incoming messages on Twitter, so it’s more of a tool for me for sharing little updates that don’t warrant a blog post.

    Hope that explains it :)

    Tim

    Like

  19. Tim, can you add a “print this” feature to your posts. I personally would like to print some of them as I teach a lot and it would make it easier to share with my classes. Thank you for all your good work in the world.

    ###

    Hi Patrick,

    Yes, this will be added in the next version of the site, coming up early March. Thx!

    Tim

    Like

  20. What a difference it makes when you don’t check email and you go on the low information diet!!

    I have been trying to do both now for the past 6 months with moderate success. However, this past weekend I went with some friends to my buddy’s condo for my first snowboarding (and Dairy Queen) experience. As we were leaving I was struggling with whether to bring my laptop, you know, “just in case.” Well I opted not to and didn’t watch any TV and it was the most relaxing (albeit physically painful) weekend I’ve had in a long time. When I got back yesterday and checked my email and heard the news come on, I realized just how little I missed both of them. :)

    Like

  21. Email is fast approaching a point where it is unusable. It needs to be filtered in a meaningful way. There is no real way to triage 500 emails a day.

    Some weekend I just don’t check it. I refuse. And by monday I have over a thousand emails. What to do?

    Like

  22. when applied correctly, these tips are remarkably useful and effective at creating a more efficient work day. i am in sales and used to constantly check my email (and blackberry) for new emails from my clients (hopefully with orders!). i always felt behind the 8 ball as far as catching up with my work and would use on average 1 night a week to “get caught up” only to have the pile begin again the following day. i have a feeling that many people just assume that this feeling is “work” and just an inevitable by-product of being employed. that is not the case. you owe it to yourself and to your employer to work as smartly and efficiently as possible. doing so will most importantly improve the quality of your life not to mention the quality of your work (which although you may resent it are intertwined). there is no maxim that says you must feel burdened by your job at all times (or at least 9-5).
    i came across your “information diet” one day and decided to take the plunge into email batching. i will tell you with no exaggeration that the first day was without a doubt the single, most productive day of my career. i now check email only at 11 and 4. checking at 4 allows me to close out anything important for that day and then create a priority list for things to handle in the morning (allowing me to not have to take my work home with me). then when i come in, i take care of that list first and knock it out. checking at 11 allows me to plan my afternoon in much the same way. i feel like i actually accomplish something at work now. i found that my biggest fear, leaving my customers hanging for a response, was actually entirely the opposite. i responded to them faster. with my 11 and 4 system, as long as they emailed before 4 they got same day service. when i checked email constantly and allowed it to pile up, i often lost track of my priorities and would not get around to replying to clients until two or three days later or until my weekly “catch up”.
    i cannot recommend #1 and 2 highly enough. following those two rules will solve a lot of the remaining steps on the list. a key thing to remember is that replying to an email does not have to be done immediately and often ends up on my priority list for the afternoon or following morning. if you often feel overrun by work or are taking your work home with you to catch up, i suggest trying these tips. taking the initial leap will be the hardest part but i encourage you to take it for a 3 day test. it can’t be any more stressful then what you use now (which is nothing).

    Like

  23. Tim,

    How do you manage in your four hour work week to add a blog post each day ?
    Thanks,

    Peter

    ###

    Hi Peter,

    LOL… I’ll take this as a sarcastic comment. The point of the 4HWW isn’t at all to be idle. I abhor sloth. The entire goal is to do more of what excites you. Right now, I’m having fun with the blog, so I allocate a fair amount of my attention to it. There is no contradiction in this.

    Buyakasha,

    Tim

    Like

  24. To Steve Olsen: IMHO, if you have that many emails you feel you need to read either your job is fundamentally distressed organizationally, or (please don’t take this as an insult) you are.

    I used to pride myself on an empty in box at the end of the day. Then I got stressed because I couldn’t do that. Returning from one vacation I found myself stressing several days in advance at the deluge of email I would have to deal with.

    So I did something that scared me and then liberated me: the first thing I did when I got in the office was to select all several thousand emails, and delete them. All of the them. And then empty my trash bin. Gone. Buh-Bye.

    I realized that if any email were so important I couldn’t possibly delete it, then someone was going to send it again. The absolute worst case would be that I could have averted a disaster if I’d read just that 1 email.

    But then, I trusted my team to avert disaster by themselves, and if they couldn’t they’d come and grab me in person or by phone.

    I had re-discovered that there is urgent and important, important but not urgent and neither urgent nor important. If something is truly urgent and important, you’re going to find out about it, soon, one way or another. If something is important, but not urgent, again, they’ll get back to you.

    Tim’s tips, and those in the 4HWW are very good refinements of that basic tactic.

    So Steve, tomorrow, delete ‘em all. Find a way to filter out only those that *are* truly important (e.g. from your boss, your most trusted lieutenant) and reclaim your life!

    Like

  25. Hi Tim,

    Just finished your book, very good and I like the idea. Personally I won’t quit my job since I am earning good money (yes, working like a dog too). However, I am going to test your idea in Japan. I just wanna test as a foreigner with no knowledge in Japanese, am I able to use Virtual Assistant in India to build a profitable business in Japan. It should be fun.

    Step 1 Today – Go to the book store to find 2 niche market

    Cheers,
    Allen

    Like

  26. Just my 2 cents:

    In one of my investment groups we have a rule for all email. The subject must list the priority, project, and particular subject. It’s a little bit of a pain at first when you’re used to firing off emails, but it has drastically cut down on long threads.

    Like

  27. Tim – one question unrelated to your post. I’ve been trying to start my own product/information business but been finding it hard to keep myself motivated. Paul Graham (http://www.paulgraham.com/notnot.html) claims that it is very difficult for a startup to be successful without a co-founder. Yet, from what I understand, you managed to do it by yourself.

    Do you recommend the solo route or do you side with Graham that really your chances for success are amplified if you can find a co-founder?

    your fan,
    Dan

    ###

    Hi Dan,

    I did not have a co-founder. I don’t know Paul’s reasons, but there I believe it largely depends on what type of business you’re trying to start. If lifestyle-driven, there are more examples of regretted partnerships than not, IMHO.

    Tim

    Like

  28. Hi Dan,

    Just wanted to add my 2 cents worth to Dan and Tim’s post: it might be best to have only yourself as the founder IF you are excited about what you want to achieve. If you have a partner, make sure you keep control (or give control to someone else). Nothing worse than having two heads on a horse that, at some point, might want to go in different directions.

    Having said that, you definitely don’t want to do this alone either. You’ll want to complement your skills with “strategic partners” who can propel you to greater heights. I think Tim mentioned in 4HWW;

    1.) concentrate on your strengths and find people/mentors who can make your strengths even stronger. What is your interest in this project? What are your strengths?

    2.) partner up with people/companies who can shore up your weaknesses and/or do the stuff that needs to be done that you don’t want or need to do (ie. accounting, order fulfillment, design…whatever it is).

    Speaking of email, I just went on a four day trip to NY for Toy Fair and left my ten pound laptop at home. I have never done this before. And since the email in the hotel business center wasn’t working, I didn’t check email for four days! And guess what. Nothing “bad” happened. I checked email this morning. Just some junk email, a few non-urgent emails…nothing really important. Lovely. I think I’ll take another 4 day email break next week and get some exciting, important stuff done that will get me closer to my dreams. Other people’s requests will just have to wait a day or two.

    Ciao
    EJ

    Like

  29. Hi Dan,

    You probably know this already but just in case anyone is wondering I just wanted to clarify “strategic” partners would be people/companies who don’t actually own any shares in your business.

    They are not “partners” in the legal sense. Rather they might be vendors, outside contractors, accountants etc. who you work closely with and who help you achieve your dreams and goals. We have an excellent “strategic” partnership with a factory in China. We love working with them and, we think, vice-versa. But we don’t own any shares in each other’s company. It’s simply an excellent working relationship that both parties nurture.
    EJ

    Like

  30. It seems that a lot of people think that e-mail is better than face to face contact. People think it’s strange that I would rather walk across the office and talk to people face to face instead of spend half the day trading e-mails!

    Like

  31. Tim and EJ – Thanks for your quick replies. I’ll have to do some thinking/reading up about “strategic” partners. I might need to shift my thinking a little bit of what vendors, contractors, and the like can contribute and accomplish.

    EJ – You seem to have your act together, could I kindly ping a couple of questions off of you? (Hmm how do we do this.. could you please drop me a note @ thetemp49@gmail.com, so I can contact you?)

    Thanks,
    Dan

    Like

  32. This is one of the most challenging things for me. I have a habit of “wanting to know”. I want to have an update of what’s in my inbox, what my site stats are, what’s in my digg inbox, facebook, etc. etc.

    I think the biggest thing that’s helped me, is regrouping constantly. You have to get into the habit of asking questions, the best two for me, are is this important is it what I really need/want to do right now and can it wait? Asking these questions gets us into the habit of realizing what’s important.

    Like

  33. Genius! Once my company got to over 100 people, it started driving me insane. One of the best tools we utilized to avoid mgmt drowning in emails was a simple in-house blog. Instead of getting bombarded with inane announcements (ex: “Doughnuts downstairs!”) we gave staff a forum to post news that wasn’t necessarily mission critical. Then we could all simply view the company’s “daily news” as we desired. It sends out a 1x per week summary to all staff so that nobody can say they didn’t see it. This permits us to view info when WE have the mental time to do it, rather than having the day constantly interrupted.

    Like

  34. I failed damn near all of these. Thank you for the tips. I can’t tell you how pertinent, timely, and needed this post was for me. I’m going to immediately adopt these and reclaim my life :). Thanks again Tim.

    Like

  35. #5 is a life saver. I learned a system years ago from Author Stephanie Winston called T.R.A.F. It was for inbox management and it identified that each item you came across should either be Trashed, Referred to an associate, Actioned Upon, or Filed. Doing so has kept my inbox organized for over 10 years now.

    Like