What I Learned From Checking Email Only Twice A Day

I was addicted to constantly checking email, so I tried cutting way back to only twice a week. Is it possible to close down your inbox without missing out? I was about to find out.

Want to get more done? Plenty of productivity gurus will tell you to check email less frequently. In The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss suggests checking email just twice a day as part of the quest for a more reasonable, productive life.

Since I’m cranking toward a book deadline right now, I thought I’d give that advice a shot. For a week, I checked email just twice during the work day, once at 10:30 a.m. and once in mid-afternoon. The results weren’t life changing, but I did learn a lot about how I work and how other people work with me.

Yes, I’m addicted to email.

For the first few days my fingers felt almost twitchy when I couldn’t look at my inbox for hours at a time. Every time I encountered a tricky spot in a chapter I was writing, I started moving my cursor toward the Firefox icon on the bottom of my screen. I caught myself but it was still interesting to see that checking email is how I cope with creative roadblocks, stress, and boredom.

Email isn’t the only time suck out there.

Of course, just because I couldn’t check email didn’t mean I couldn’t find other ways to avoid working. I had no limit on websurfing. Consequently, I spent a lot more time reading and commenting on blogs, and perusing Facebook than I otherwise would have.

Nonetheless, focused work is fast work!

When I didn’t check email until 10:30 a.m., but started working shortly after 6 a.m., I got a lot done. I wrote and edited whole chapters. I would have written those chapters anyway eventually, but they would have taken a lot longer.

Email can be fun.

We all love to complain about our inboxes, but this is because we don’t want to read most things that are in there. The messages are irrelevant, or we have to deal with messages we don’t want to deal with. But if you only check email twice a day, you’re almost guaranteed to find at least one message you actually did want to read each time. Maybe it’s a note from a friend, or a client asking about a new project, or fan mail. In any case, checking email is more fun when you hit the jackpot every time.

Inboxes are modern filing cabinets.

I mostly stuck to my twice-a-day goal. However, I did flub a few times when I realized that I’d stored vital information in an email. I saw on my calendar that I needed to call someone, but I couldn’t recall the specific information they’d emailed me to talk about. So I had to look. I tried to avert my eyes from any new messages, but I still saw some things—thus breaking the spell.

The people who love you most want to hear back fastest.

Most people were fine waiting to hear from me. That’s an important discovery, and one that will help me manage my email time better from now on. More humorously, though, my husband kept sending me emails—while we were both working at home, incidentally—and then would come ask me "did you get the note I just sent?" Nope, but with him standing in the door of my home office, he could just mention whatever it was. Problem solved—though it did strike me that perhaps we should try talking to each other more often.

Smartphones make an email diet hard.

To avoid the temptation of my inbox, I kept my iPhone off. But that meant I didn’t get text messages either. On Tuesday, I was a bit puzzled when someone I expected to drop by hadn’t shown up by 2:30 p.m. Eventually I turned on my phone and saw the explanatory text from many hours before, but I also saw the rising number on my inbox icon. It was hard not to give it a quick check.

That ‘4-hour workweek’ thing won’t happen.

If you check email twice a day, each check takes longer. While normally you might delude yourself that you’ll deal with an irksome note later, when later is many hours later, you face up to the fact that you must deal with it now. Dealing with it takes time.

Even if each check takes only 30 minutes (and at twice a day, it took me at least that), that’s five hours a week. While that’s better than the 14 or so hours many office workers spend on email per week, it’s still more than four.

[Image: Flickr user Maciej Bliziński]

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11 Comments

  • Very brave, Laura! As a fellow email addict, I am inspired to take up the challenge as well. While I couldn't do this for my work email, because I am expected to be on top of things all the time - I think 2 checks of the personal email a day is a great goal. Thanks!

  • Clark Freshman

    Hmmm - love your insights and loveyour writing. loThe book advises that one works a total of four hours not one check email for four hours. I agree that's pretty hard - and even email can take that long alone! A huge tip from the book: outsource to have someone check your email.

  • patrick.kenna@cymstar.com

    Having read some of Tim Ferris's other work, the 4-Hour Workweek is more of a Platonic Ideal as opposed to something us humans are able to easily achieve. Great article.

  • Love this concept - and especially the point about email being our filing cabinet - that is exactly what happens to me when I try to stay off the email - I end up needing something inside it. Now I try to cut/paste info I need for blog posts, etc RIGHT into a post draft so it's actually WHERE I need it WHEN I need it.

  • Jiahua Lam

    This article isn't for everyone. If you are internal support staff then chances are e-mail are a sort of helpdesk ticketing system for you, as well as agile feedback mechanism that aids your ability to knock out multiple help requests rapidly. For such a person, if you do not monitor your e-mail inbox pretty much 24/7, then your work performance will suffer.

    If I only checked my inbox 4 times a day, I'd have a lot of angry clients wondering why stuff I'm supposed to do just isn't getting done. And by the end of the day, 80% of the stuff I should have gotten done simply would not have gotten done--because I did not know it needed doing.

    E-mail is an amazing tool. Maybe it's not helpful for everyone, but for me it's a central part of how I do my job.

  • Darren Murphy

    An interesting read. I usually work fullscreen in the office without any notifications to interrupt me, that counts for Twitter, Facebook and e-mail, only calendar prompts come through. I usually have push notifications on my iPhone off as well.

    The biggest timesaver I find from this is that people prioritise themselves. If a partner requires a prompt response and doesn't get it, they'll give me a call and my inbox slowly lacks emails with those big red exclamation marks...

    I find it quite amusing how -as with Laura's example with her husband- colleagues will perk up to ask if I've seen an email they've sent me relating to a task I've set time aside for later in the day. It seems encouraging communication IRL is something we all have to work on!

    Thanks Laura.

  • I'm also trying to check my emails twice a day (or so) but, as the article mentions, it's not always possible. However, deactivating my phone's email auto sync function, as well as most of my apps' push notifications on my android, proved to be a huge productivity boost!

  • Laura: Great experiment. Working with busy professionals who equate responsiveness with getting back to people fast versus getting good work done, I often advise only periodic email checking. The intervals can vary, but the basic concept is to realize that email is just a tool. It's out use of the tool that determines how productive and effective we can be.

    Of course, the basic problem with email is it's shear volume. That's where good hygiene and/or good add-on tools can help. For example, there's a new plug in for Outlook call MailMatters (www.mailmatters.co) that auto-sorts inbound email into separate Inbox Tabs. This auto-sorting gives the user a better look at what's truly important and what's available for review later. I commend it to you readers!

  • Darren Murphy

    Hey Paul, I've been desperately seeking something like MailMatters since we swapped to Office365 -this will save our bookkeeper so much time! Thanks

  • Luciano Elias

    I have a hard time understanding why people have to take everything so literally.