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Constantly Checking Email – Your Email is Not That Urgent

Most professionals spend their work day constantly checking email. An email comes in, and we feel compelled to reply. We put aside the project we were working on and promise ourselves we’ll get right back to it. But then we receive five more emails, and so most days go. As a result, many people start doing their actual jobs at 5:00 p.m.

When was the last time you did an hour and a half of actual work without being drawn into your inbox? My hunch is, not in years.

Email has become a noose and an albatross.

I too have fallen into the constantly checking email, time-sucking trap. Every email must be returned immediately. Or worse, I open emails, read them and say I will reply later, but never do. I promise myself I’ll go back to the old, unanswered messages only to get distracted by the many more emails that have piled on top of the existing emails. Older messages get buried, never to be returned. And I, in turn, become a seemingly unresponsive flake.

The days that I discipline myself to read my email only after working on a project for a good chunk of time, are the days I get the most done and feel the most in control of my day. We have all started our work day with a well-intentioned list of things to do, only to find that at the end of the day we did none of them. This lack of control feels terrible and is unbelievably stressful.

Most time management books and training programs recommend checking email at certain intervals during the day –once in the morning, once in the afternoon, and once at the end of the day. Read an email once and resolve it. Reply, delete, or forward the message to a more appropriate person. But this is hard to do. What happens if we don’t reply immediately? Will we look bad? What will we miss?

One of the keys to having a balanced life and true down time is to be disciplined about how you spend your working hours.

What if we made July, check-your-email-every-three-hours month? How much more would we get done? How much more relaxed and free would we feel?

I’m going to try it, and I’m expecting you to keep me true to my word. If you send me an email and I reply immediately, you’ll know I have failed and have been sucked into the Outlook vortex of lost time. But if you read my reply, I’ll know you’ve been sucked in too.

constantly checking email


Shari Harley is the founder and President of Candid Culture, a Denver-based training firm that is bringing candor back to the workplace, making it easier to give feedback at work. Shari is the author of the business communication book How to Say Anything to Anyone: A Guide to Building Business Relationships that Really Work. She is a keynote speaker at conferences and does training throughout the U.S. Learn more about Shari Harley and Candid Culture’s training programs at

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5 Responses to “Constantly Checking Email – Your Email is Not That Urgent”

  1. Jim Mello says:

    Let’s hear how it goes for you!

  2. Joe says:

    Shari, thanks for the great article! Your suggestions re: minimizing the frequency of checking emails is a good one. It reminded me of what Stephen Covey talks about in his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Specifically, he references working on the “not Urgent, but Important” and uses the metaphor of “fire prevention” as compared with “fire fighting.” Habits are ingrained and as you say, we need to check in and when/if necessary, force ourselves to do things differently so that in th end, we spend our time more wisely.

  3. Charles says:

    So Shari, it has been a couple of months since this blog. I was looking for something to “calm the email beast”. How is it going for you and have you had any ‘AHA!’ moments?

    • shari says:

      Hi there – Nice to hear from. Laura Stack is a productivity expert. She writes and offers training and webinars on managing email. I’d check out one of webinars on managing Outlook. I think you might find it helpful. Let me know what you think. I’m doing OK with not being ‘run’ by my email. I’m mostly working on checking it a few times a day vs. reading it compulsively. I hope you’re doing well!

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