Escaping the Corporate Email Habit

Jun 10, 2014
Joe Buhlig
~3 mins

I used to pride myself in having one of the fastest email replies in the office. If you sent me an email, I was back to you in less than 10 minutes. Sometimes 5.

Like most corporations, we used Outlook for email and calendaring. I had it set up to alert me every time I got a new email. On average, I was receiving around 100 emails a day. That’s a lot of dings. In the office environment, email was as good as IM.

It’s interesting what 100 dings in a day will do to your focus. Every time I got into the groove of something I heard that ding and my Pavlovian instinct kicked in. I read and responded to the email and went back to work. That’s fine, but I then spent a few minutes trying to get back into the groove I had just lost. It wasn’t working. The more email I sent, the more I received and my projects were suffering because of it.

Turning off email?

I had read and listened to a lot of folks that turned off email notifications and checked email only a few times during the day. It seemed ridiculous to me. Why would I make people wait to hear back from me? What if something urgent comes up? What if my boss needs something? It didn’t make sense to me.

But these people seemed to like it. And if it worked for them all the time I figured I could try it for a day. If it worked, great! If not, oh well. I’d look for a different solution.

The plan

I scheduled 9 times to process my email that day. I didn’t want to go crazy and only open Outlook once all day. That was too much. So I chose to check it once an hour during the work day. I would spend as long as I needed at the top of every hour to bring my inbox down to empty — I was already maintaining inbox zero.

The first day

The first email check was fine. It was at the beginning of the day and I had to get caught up from the late night emails (crazy night owls). But then I had to shut Outlook down. That was hard. I don’t think I had done that for anything other than restarting my computer since I started with the company almost 2 years before. But I managed to do it.

I was sitting on a porcupine that hour. I kept wondering if I had something in my email that I needed to respond to. I was pretty much useless. Zero work accomplished, sir. I was watching the clock - just waiting for the chance to open Outlook. At the top of the hour, I promptly started rifling through emails.

What struck me was the lack of urgency in them. There wasn’t anything that needed a response right away. That’s odd. So I closed it down again and went back to work. I was still thinking about it, but it wasn’t as pressing this time.

The next email check came and although there was a couple of things that were urgent, they didn’t need an immediate response. They could wait a few hours, but only waited about 30 minutes. This process continued throughout the day.

At the end, I realized that I had accomplished a lot of my actual work and had managed to keep up with email. No buildings burned down. My boss didn’t throw a fit. And I felt pretty good about the day. It had been one of my most productive days in a long time.

Since leaving corporate

I’ve since left the corporate office scene and work from home full time. I now check my email twice a day. If something is important enough that someone needs a response quicker than 5 hours, they call me. If they’re going to call me, why would I spend my time monitoring my inbox? I’ve got better things to do.