When you should (and shouldn’t) check your email

There are some times, like when you’re sitting on the train, that are perfect for checking email. And then there are other times, like first thing in the morning, when you are better off shutting it down.

When you should (and shouldn’t) check your email
[Photo: Antonio DiCaterina/Unsplash]

Of all of those distractions that take your attention away, email is potentially the most dangerous. It’s nearly impossible to resist the lure of the ping of a new message.


As career expert Elizabeth Whittaker-Walker explains, though a valuable tool for sharing information and general communication, it can also have the opposite impact of its intent—and be a major time waster. It can also be a way to hide from confrontation—or delay a deadline. “Sometimes, a 5-minute phone call can clear up what could take 15 e-mail exchanges. It’s important not to over rely on it, especially when you may have other tools at your disposal that can save time and be more efficient,” Whittaker-Walker continues.

There are situations and times that call for email checking—and other times when you should ‘X’ out of the window or app and force yourself to be head down. Here, career experts share their best recommendations for when you should—and shouldn’t—log into your inbox.

Don’t check email: first thing in the morning

Grab your cold brew, say ‘hi’ to your colleague, and put in your headphones. You’re ready to start your grind, and instinctively, you open your email. It’s a habit that many professionals have developed—some as early as the moment they wake up in the morning. However, career expert for TopResume Amanda Augustine says it’s actually the very worst time you can scroll through your messages. “Not only can it throw off your schedule and to-do list for the whole day—how many times did you open your inbox to ‘just check’ and then, hours later, you look up and realize your morning is gone?—but it wastes precious hours when most people are operating at their peak levels of productivity,” she explains.

If you are worried there could be an urgent exchange lurking in your messages, Augustine recommends setting yourself a timer to skim and respond to only those emails that are time sensitive. “Otherwise, save a deeper look at your incoming messages for later in the morning, once you’ve completed an important item on your to-do list,” she adds.

Do check email: when you’re on a business trip

If your company is flying you across the country or the Atlantic to put out a fire with a client and you’re MIA from email, you’re likely the one going up in flames. Though you shouldn’t feel as if you have to be online 24/7, you should be reachable most of the time when your employer is fronting the cost for your excursion. You also want to try and stay connected to what’s happening back in the office, so you don’t miss a beat upon your return. “You never know what may come up when you’re on the road for a conference or meeting in another place. You want to be able to respond to important happenings that may be taking place when you’re physically out of the office. You also might want to send a quick follow-up note after meeting a new contact. In other words: you should always have a travel contingency plan,” Whittaker-Walker urges.

Don’t check email: when you’re procrastinating

When you’ve had a stellar night of sleep or you’re jazzed about your meetings of the day, staying focused is easy. But when you feel overwhelmed by your deliverables or unable to prioritize, email can make you feel like you’re working—when really, you’re procrastinating. Though you are feeling great about categorizing your emails from 2016 into separate folders, you’re actually creating more work for yourself, according to Augustine. “If you find yourself drawn to your inbox, then stop,” she suggests. “Take a step back, and reexamine your priorities for the day. Don’t allow your email to become an excuse for why the real work you needed to complete did not get done.”


Do check email: when you’re expecting an important response

If you’re leading a project or you’re awaiting a response from an important client, being away from your email can delay progress. It can also make it more likely for miscommunication to happen if you aren’t available, so having your inbox open for an hour or so while you wait is recommended by Augustine. Depending on your email carrier, she notes you can even set up a special notification for certain senders only, so you will get pinged—via text or pop-up—when they respond. This might be a more strategic solution, so you aren’t tempted by a Kate Spade flash sale.

Don’t check email: before you go to sleep

If you want a surefire way to get your heart rate up, check your email right before you turn off your bedside lamp. As Whittaker-Walker explains, there’s really no reason to page through your inbox if you’re trying to calm your mind and make your date with the sandman. It’s not only bad for your psyche, but for your body. “Filling your mind with the downloads, requests, and inquiries that typically accompany emails ignites the parts of your brain that keep it awake. The blue light from devices also works against rest,” she explains. “Checking email just before you go to sleep can set you up for work dreams, a restless night, and morning fatigue.”

Do check email: when you’re commuting via public transit

Much like there is never a reason to take a car selfie, you shouldn’t read and drive at the same time, either. But, if you happen to live in a city where you commute via transit every day, Augustine says this can be an ideal place to skim your inbox to see if anything urgent is bubbling to your attention. And of course, delete the noise or spam you don’t need. This begins your work shift on a productive note, and allows you to dive right into a task—instead of your email—once you arrive to the office. “The evening commute is also a good time to clean out your inbox, organize messages into the appropriate folders, and help you set up your list of action items for the following day,” she adds.

Don’t check email: when spending quality time with your friends and family

Sure, busy quarters or an unusually demanding client may mean that you have to tend to your email at home. Or when you’re with your friends. Though this is an expectation of many American-led businesses—you can also time block your quality-time so your friends and family don’t feel neglected. Or more to the point: you don’t feel like you’re forever working, around-the-clock. Everyone needs a ‘pause’ from communicating with managers, coworkers, and clients, after all. And your community outside of work offers that support. “The people who love you most are the ones who will be there with you through good days, rough days, job transitions, and more. They may not understand the demands of your job in the same ways that you do,” Whittaker-Walker explains. “Checking emails on dates, during outings, or at dinner can communicate disengagement and disinterest. Be present. There are some moments you can never get back.”

Do check email: when you schedule the time

Think about your calendar for a hot second—you have blocks for meetings, right? And how about your lunch break, so you actually eat during the day? One of the most beneficial ways to work is to schedule your time and keep to it. Consider rethinking how you approach email, and apply the same logic. Augustine says when you dictate certain hours for email activities, you hold yourself accountable and remain in the moment. “If you only check your email at certain times during the day, and for a prescribed amount of time, you will become more productive during those windows. Not only that, but you’ll also set clearer expectations for when your colleague can expect to receive a response from you,” she explains.