24 May 2016

Don’t Do Email First Thing in the Day

This is one of my most powerful time-saving tips, yet it often draws a gasp of shock and sometimes outrage from listeners or readers.  (There are variations and exceptions, before you bite my head off!)

Several reasons:

  • The potential distraction factor (unless you’re very disciplined, or on tight time-lines which will keep you focused anyway.)
  • When you’re responding to/reacting to others’ emails, are you working on your priorities or are others directing your day? Of course some mails are highly important and/or urgent, but is that all you work on first thing?
  • For many of us, the medium is addictive. You intend to take a quick look but it’s so easy to ‘just check these ones’. Before you know it, an hour or two of your precious day has disappeared.
  • If you don’t have an appointment first thing, the day seems to stretch ahead invitingly and a ‘few minutes’ checking the email seems like a nice easy momentum-creating activity. However, many of us find we’re much too easily side-tracked in following hyper-links on interesting items, reviewing blog posts .… and more. And then, before we know it, the end of the day shows up and we find ourselves saying ‘I’ll get to that big job tomorrow’.

Case Study:

Pita Alexander, a very popular conference presenter and Canterbury accountant, was at a ‘Getting A Grip on the Farm Office’ session with me some time back. (He had just presented at the same conference.) Here’s what he said about email:

‘I don’t look at my email until after 4pm. My PA keeps an eye on it through the day. She clears the rubbish and anything urgently needing my attention will have been brought to my attention. By the time I get to them there are rarely more than 8 emails left for me. I don’t leave work until I’ve dealt with them – but they haven’t sucked dry my productive time.’

I can hear some of you saying ‘all very well for him. He’s lucky to have a PA.’ No, it’s not luck. It’s a choice – and that’s a different topic.

Pita isn’t reacting to email. Instead he keeps control, staying focused on the work that brings in his income. He doesn’t allow email to drive his priorities. He manages it instead of being managed by it.

Some possible exceptions:

  • If you work across time zones and need to review last night’s mail before you can start work.
  • If you’re in a customer-focused role that requires rapid response
  • Or you’re the front-line PA/administrator/support person for rapid response colleagues or senior management and part of your role is to keep an eye on their email.
  • And of course, when you’ll be away from your computer for the rest of the day. A quick morning check gives peace-of-mind


One of my legal clients, who often receives instructions overnight from offshore clients, checks his mail on his iPhone while he’s waiting to give his teenage son a ride to school. He’s then got peace of mind and can get straight to his already-planned priorities when he hits the desk.

Many people check on their phones whilst riding public transport to work.

Most of us won’t be tempted to get into a long response session on those small screens and keyboards. Mind at rest, we can then ignore email until later in the day.

One caution: If you do this, turn anything that needs further attention later in the day back to Unread so you don’t lose sight of it.


  • Set yourself regular checking times, but not in your prime creative time.
  • If you’ve got a big task that needs concentration, don’t go near your emails until you’ve had a solid burst of time on the big job.
  • Treat checking the mail as a treat and a light break.
  • Set a time limit and then turn the mail programme off when time’s up.

You Might Like To Try These Variations:

  • Every now and then, have a non-email day. It won’t die from neglect. You might have a bit of catch-up the next day, but you’ve given your brain a chance to de-tox. Very good for the health! An increasing number of companies are instituting ‘Email-Free’ Days. I’ve also heard of ‘Email-Free Friday’.Doesn’t the very sound of it seem like wonderful freedom!
  • On a daily basis only deal with the top level priority mails and leave the rest for a catch-up session, say once a week. This is what I do. It’s another example of chunking tasks. Then I plough through the assembled ‘might be useful’ plethora of unread ‘stuff’ for a couple of hours. (I don’t work from my Inbox but instead in my Unread Mail folder – but I’ll talk about the value of that another time.)

For more help on this thorny topic, check out my two webinar recordings with Information and Email Overload specialist Steuart Snooks https://gettingagrip.com/products/online-webinars/


A version of this article also appears in Robyn’s regular NZ Herald Online column


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