The Case For And Against Checking Your Email When You Wake Up

Should you work before work? It depends. Let's explore both sides of the coin.

We all spend more time on email than we should. But does when you do that first check matter?

When I started writing about what the most successful people do before breakfast a few years ago, many people asked me where email fits in a productive morning routine.

We know there’s a school of thought—best summarized by Julie Morgenstern’s wise book Never Check E-Mail in the Morning—saying you shouldn’t check it early on. But many of us do, in fact, a recent survey done by the Huffington Post and Real Simple found that 47% of the 3,583 women polled kept their smartphones on their night stands so they could check email right when they woke up.

So should you check or not? The answer is that it depends. It depends on what kind of person you are, what kind of emails you get, and how good you are at keeping control of your schedule.

The Case Against

The reasons not to check email in the early hours are pretty compelling. Your inbox is often a reactive space. Once you start reading email and responding, you are spending your time on things other people think should be a priority. Email also expands to fill the available space. If you start your day on email, you may spend much of your morning on email before making time for your top priorities. Or you may never get to your top priorities.

There’s some evidence that mornings are many people’s most productive times. A recent white paper by researchers associated with Johnson & Johnson found that people‘s energy levels hit their peak around 8 a.m. That is game time. Whatever you do at 8 a.m. is what you are choosing to devote your best self to. Many of us don’t want to devote our best selves to our inboxes.

The Case For

That said, there’s a lot of time before 8 a.m. You can glance at the phone, see what’s there, and potentially delete or respond to a few things if you’re, say, waiting for the bus, or even waiting for your spouse to get out of the bathroom. Indeed, if that lessens the chances that you’ll sit down at your desk at 8 a.m. and feel you absolutely have to check email, that can be a wise choice.

This tends to be what I do. I’ll take a look at my inbox some time before the official start of my workday. I deal with anything involving the day’s scheduling. That way, I see what’s waiting for me. But I do my best to protect 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. for focused work. After that, I can start checking email and dealing with the outside world again.

What it comes down to

The key is knowing yourself. If you know that once you start dealing with email you won’t be able to stop until you hit Inbox Zero, then don’t check email in the morning. You’ll never hit Inbox Zero so you’ll never get to anything else. But if you can start and stop, then go for it. Just make sure you’re protecting your best time for your best work, and making sure email fits around that.

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  • Sergei Bolshakov

    You make the 8-10am argument based on the J&J saying that people are more energized in the morning. Could they feel better simply because in the beginning they fill relaxed drinking coffee, talking to each other, and...well...just wasting time checking emails? In other words, could be true that high productivity in the morning will lead to checking emails/feeling great later with same overall productivity? :-)

  • Paul H. Burton

    Laura: Two comments regarding checking email first thing in the morning:
    1. Managing Reality: As you noted, should/shouldn't isn't really the question. That horse is out of the barn b/c most people do. My advice to my audiences and clients is to -
    a. Review & Clear: Look through the list of emails and delete all those that don't matter. Make sure you are deleting them both on our device and at the server so you don't have to do it again later. (Don't worry, they're in your Deleted file if there's a problem.)
    b. Acknowledge but Don't Commit: There's a difference between sending a response back to someone acknowledging that you've read their email and sending back a response committing to it. An acknowledgement assuages the sender's concern related to whether you received and have read the email. A commitment sets the expectation that whatever the email contains will get done in the time frame set forth. Here are examples of each:
    (1) Acknowledgement: "Thanks for this. I'll get back to you on it [when I get to the office] or [in an hour]."
    (2) Commitment: "Okay" or "Will Do" or "Got it."
    The difference between the two is huge because most of us don't remember how much is already on today's to-do until we get to the office. If we make a bunch of commitments first thing in the morning before seeing that list, we're very likely to over-commit. Then, we'll spend a portion of that day informing those same people that we, in fact, won't be fulfilling our commitments to them. A bit soul sucking and certainly not a good showing of our talents.
    2. Pre-Sorting Tool: For the Outlook users out there, there's a terrific new plugin called RepriseMail - It pre-sorts email into four categories - Primary, VIP, CC/BCC and Low Priority. It helps you focus on the important stuff first and look at the other stuff later. Check it out.