To win back control of our time and give ourselves the space to pause, reflect, and think our own thoughts, we need boundaries between us and our digital channels of communication. We simply need to touch our email less each day. (This guideline actually applies equally to all messaging and keyboard-based communications, whether it’s Slack, IM, or Teams.) That’s why I’m such a big proponent of the practice of Interval Checking: creating periods of time when we purposely abstain from email checking and lengthen the intervals between email “hits.”
But after years of telling folks to only check email at certain times, it became clear that many were missing a key definition upholding the entire practice. They did not understand the critical difference between checking and processing.
Separating “Checking” and “Processing”
So let’s make that clear right now: checking is when you walk out to your mailbox, collect the mail and rip it all open; processing is when you pour a cup of tea, grab your checkbook, and work through the stack of mail before you.
For a more literal definition:
Checking Email: The action of collecting and opening new emails
Processing Email: Acting on, sorting, and eliminating preexisting email in your inbox
You will quickly realize that processing is the ugly stepsister at this ball. Checking is a thrill-filled ride of possibility. Even the stressful emails are, in the end, stimulating. Processing is mowing the lawn on a ninety-degree day—up and down, up and down. It’s sweaty, unforgiving work and less invigorating in every way than its sexy counterpart.
And there is another reason we tend to procrastinate it. Dopamine, that happy chemical released when you complete a task, is triggered by the unpredictability and novelty of checking, not the humdrum cadence of processing. One gets you high, and one makes you sigh.
A Counterintuitive Tip
So how can we check email only at certain times but still spend time in the environment of our inbox for processing? The core technique, and the most counterintuitive, is to learn to pay attention to bold emails only at certain times. We must train ourselves to process through un-bold emails without getting pulled back into what’s new (checking when we’re supposed to be processing.)
Between times when you feel it would be strategic to check your emails, try to avert your eyes from new bold content. Try working up from the bottom of your inbox on items you’ve opened but not completed. Just process away, clicking one by one through the un-bolded, older mail. Even if you notice new bolded items, training yourself to “see it but not open it yet,” gives you back some control.
But, But, But . . .
If something catches your eye and you feel like you must open it (e.g., it’s critical or from your boss), go ahead. This is a very gentle practice, but over time you will see that by training your eye away from the bolded section of your inbox, you reclaim quite a bit of control. Remember that soon enough, it will be check time, and you can scratch that itch.
Between checks, it’s important to remove any unwanted pop-ups or notifications that will pull you back into new emails—move toward zero notifications whenever possible.
Many times we are forced or purposefully choose to access new emails between checks. Maybe you are interacting with your boss via email in a cadence that can’t be paused, or you are waiting for a conference call where no one is showing up. At these times, simply open up and use the search window of your email program. This way, you can selectively access new emails for individual parties while not getting pulled back into the entire barrage that is waiting for you. Some folks like to check for the names of their supervisors once per hour just to relieve some concern while staying away from the bulk of their new mail.
Processing email doesn’t have to feel like you’re pushing a boulder uphill, but it takes time and discipline to develop and maintain healthy and productive habits. It may sound impossible, but I promise it’s doable and certainly worth trying. You’ll be amazed by how much hidden productivity you’ll find.
This article is also available in Chinese.
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