I thought I’d share how I check email these days. Boring subject, I know.
Like many, I’ve wrestled with the onslaught of digital communication. Email is my favorite thing about the internet, even more than websites. Every communication invention post-email is, in my opinion, lacking. Some of them are downright annoying and useless (ahem, Twitter).
Maybe this will be insightful for others, so that is why I share it.
This post pertains to my system for dealing with personal email, not work email. I’ll write about work email another time.
This is also meant to be a flexible system. It’s a guide. While I’m usually consistent, I have learned that hard and fast rules about such things can be more hindrance than help.
Many guides out there advise to “check” email once or twice per day to help mitigate against constant checking. I’ve done this, and found it lacking still.
I still find it to be too frequent. Worse, I also still leave a number of emails “undone” in my inbox, thinking I would handle them on my next check-in. In most cases, I don’t handle them, but postpone them again.
This is especially true if the email requires a response or action from me that is not a written email reply, such as having to call someone, or locate a document, etc.
Thus, I embarked upon a system many months ago that I have been continually refining. I call it TTS. It stands for Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. My little acronym resonates within me as “Time To Send”. You could pretend it stands for “Time To Socialize”, or “Tame The Sickness”, or “Talk To Someone”, or whatever reminds you of the days.
I felt like email needed to be not only checked, but handled. This is why I exclusively deal with email on a computer, not my phone. (More on that shortly).
I also don’t feel the need to necessarily handle email in one sitting on those days, but I usually do. However, if I need to fiddle with email throughout the day a bit, I have that option.
Why those three days? Simple.
On a regular work week, I’m usually digitally dead by Friday afternoon. I don’t want to see any more screens or deal with computers. While I definitely do not work for the weekend, like everybody does apparently, I am still ready to do something other than sit and type on Friday evening.
Sunday is my digital Sabbath, in as much as I can allow for it.
Monday is an important day for me to feel that I am getting ahead of the week, on top of my goals, making progress, and more. For me, most email detracts from those goals. Keeping Mondays email-free is a huge benefit.
Many experts recommend not checking email (or news and social media) in the mornings for the same reasons: you find yourself responding to other people’s needs instead of establishing your own rhythms first. I feel the same about Mondays. The week is my week and I like to give myself the best chance to make it so.
By Tuesday, it’s time to start dealing with email again, not to mention the pileup from Monday, which seems when most people like to send email.
Wednesday is a well-deserved break from email and goes inline with my philosophy of treating Wednesdays not as “hump day” (boy, I hate that term), but “Weelaxing Wednesday”. Of course, one has to work on Wednesday, so that phrase is related more to my thinking about the evening after work on Wednesdays.
Thursday, it’s back to email for a final push before the break on Friday.
Which means that Saturday is the day to get errands done, including email, so that I can rest on Sunday and get a jump on the week on Monday without feeling like I’m too behind on email.
There are some benefits I’ve found, some of which were unexpected.
Despite everyone claiming to not like dealing with email, we all have the annoying tic of wondering when someone is going to reply, especially when that person is a friend or someone close to us.
By “checking” email only ever 2-3 days, I quickly found that in most all cases, that person had replied by then. Yet, had I been checking multiple times per day, I would sometimes find myself becoming anxious (or annoyed, or curious) if they hadn’t yet replied to one of my emails. This might be solvable by other methods, but it was a nice “cure” I didn’t expect as I started down this journey.
In general, anxiety was less overall, too. Much like a P.O. Box which one might drive to a few times per week, there is the security of knowing the emails are there waiting, but I no longer have that pinging in my head about incoming emails (and that’s assuming one has their notifications all set to “off” on all devices). No matter what someone sends me, it will be there waiting until I’m ready to deal with it.
Another advantage is that I handle emails in a more timely manner. That may seem counter-intuitive. The emails that one doesn’t want to handle, that aren’t very fun, now have the space and time to be dealt with more rapidly. It may be that my subconscious has time to breathe between email check-ins, so I feel more ready to jump on the associated and needed tasks on TTS days to complete them.
Previously, arduous emails would find themselves drifting to the bottom of my inbox, often sitting for weeks and weeks. And those are the ones that absolutely had to be dealt with eventually. The others could sometimes stagnate for months, sometimes never being addressed.
Lastly, at this pace, I find myself being more thoughtful, particularly with replies. I find myself taking the time to enjoy reading emails, especially from friends, without feeling rushed. Just as I once did with letters.
This pace, for me, feels right. It combines the best of the internet (free, secure, communication) but without the frenetic speed and anxiety commonly associated with internet-based communication.
About Mobile Email
I don’t have email on my phone. I haven’t for a long while and with good reason.
But first, a confession. I actually do have email on my phone.
Let me clarify. I have the email app on my phone. It’s buried in a folder called “Utilities” right along with the calculator app and the App Store and other things I never really look at.
Also, all notifications on it are turned off.
And I almost never look at it to read email.
So why have it on my phone at all? There was a brief time I didn’t have it on the phone at all. But a few edge cases cropped up.
- Sometimes on a phone call with a customer support department, they had to email me something critical and, after a 30-minute wait, I wanted to ensure I had it before hanging up (or I needed to reference something in the email before hanging up with them). My computer may not be readily accessible in those cases.
- Similar to #1, a number of websites sometimes insist on emailing a 6-digit security code to complete a login. Never mind how easy this is to bypass for real hackers. Point is, if I must login to a website on mobile, it becomes impossible unless I can get that email. This only happens once a month or so, but still…
- Once in a blue moon, I have to email something to someone while on the run. While rare, it sometimes can’t wait until I get back to a computer. Usually this is a PDF or other “important” document. It probably could wait (on my end), but it’s usually the other person who needs it ASAP. Being able to send it saves a long and boring conversation about why I can’t do it right away (that conversation being the one you are reading now). And a conversation they definitely don’t to hear at that moment.
So why did I take email off my phone, in essence?
One reason was that I didn’t really read emails on my phone: I scanned them. Then, it made me feel like I was actually doing something on my phone. But I wasn’t. Because then I had to re-read them later on the computer before replying.
If there’s anything that’s not effective use of my time, it’s doing something twice.
I also rarely replied on my phone. Not only is it about the slowest possible way to communicate (typing on a phone at 15 wpm, when I type on a keyboard at 85wpm, almost six times faster), it became a thoughtless method of reply. Because of the slower speed, I wouldn’t reply with the treatment and depth I would otherwise on a keyboard.
Worse, when I replied on a phone, I was often surrounded by other things going on around me, so the distracted environment didn’t allow me to fully engage with the person’s email. While that might be acceptable with a medium like text messaging, I didn’t feel it was right for me when replying to someone’s email.
Another reason I removed email from my phone was that a good number of emails required more work before properly replying. It could be some basic internet research (another thing I deplore doing on a mobile browser), or maybe procuring physical stuff, or some real-world task.
After reading such an email on my phone, then my head was filled with one more “to do”, pinging at me until I did it. For whatever reason, I don’t find this issue nearly as common when handling email 3x/week on a regular computer. If there is a “to do” that is not computer-related, I just use my regular task management system to schedule it. In theory, that could also be done after reading a mobile device. In practice, it didn’t turn out that way for me too often.
Some people can’t stand that pinging, so that’s why you’ll get “useless” replies to email that say things like “Awesome! I’ll check this out soon!”, or “Let me look into this and get back to you”. Pointless. Just look into it and then get back to me. I’m not going to think you died if I don’t hear back from you within the hour I sent the email.
For that reason possibly, I also found myself using my mobile browser less. Somehow, the “checking” of email seems tied to increased web browsing. It isn’t likely directly related, and could possibly be addressed separately, but for me, I just noticed this overtime. And for me, I found that to be another benefit, as I prefer to minimize digital noise and distractions when reasonably possible.
For me, a phone is about instant communication (and unfortunately, instant gratification, something which isn’t likely helping many of us).
Conversely, email is, or should be, about more thoughtful communication.
When it comes to company or business emails we receive, I’m very particular what I allow in my inbox. So, the few companies that are allowed to reach me, or for who I must receive emails (such as my bank), I have time to properly deal with them so as to not put off responsibilities.
This post isn’t meant to sound preachy, so apologies to the peanut gallery if it does. It’s an idea. There are millions of them on the internet, especially about how to handle the digital overload we all sometimes feel.
For me, this is a system that works admirably. I originally had a little increased anxiety during days when I wasn’t checking email, but that quickly diminished. The benefits quickly shone through, and my overall anxiety about email itself fell considerably.
What I would encourage others to do, however, is to not just accept the state of things as they are. If your device comes with email, that doesn’t mean you have to keep it there; you don’t have to check it X times per day.
Empower yourself. You can decide. Maybe you don’t need a system like I’ve created. What I think is important, however, is that we all examine our use of all these tools to see if they serve our best life.
I don’t want to spend the next 25 years of my life dealing with email. I want to spend it with those I love, and doing things I love.
I like email well enough, but it’s a means to an end, not the end itself.