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I have had a couple of different phases of approaching dealing with checking work email. This will likely continue to evolve for me, but I thought it would be helpful to share my evolution and some approaches. Work email is notorious for expanding beyond the “40 hour” work week and becoming a part of daily life. Different jobs do have different requirements and expectations around this, but for many, there is not a specific job functionality need to be on email 24/7.
Phase 1: COMPUSIVE EMAIL CHECKING
I got my first smart phone while at my first real job out of college. I loved my job and took it very seriously and quickly set up my work email on my phone. In a very short period of time it became second nature for me to check email outside of work: I would check it when I woke up in the morning, in the car before I walked into the office, again in the car before I walked into the house when I was coming home, etc. Even when I was on vacation, I felt a responsibility to check my work email and be responsive if there were issues.
Looking back with perspective, I think some of this relationship to email and my job was because it was my first real job and I had a heightened sense of urgency around everything. I probably would have told people that my job required I be responsive – and yes, there were some things that came up that did need timely answers (someone not able to make a shift as I oversaw staff scheduling, a promo code on the website not working properly, etc.).
While there may have been some practical reasons for me checking email all the time, social pressure (everyone else was responding to emails after work) and boundary setting issues, ultimately, I was able to overcome those fairly easily when I realized I was the issue. The real reason I think I was checking email was because it gave me a sense of identity and importance. People needed me! I was the only one who could fix X problem!
I have a specific memory of sitting at home on a weekend, picking up my phone to check email, seeing there were no new messages and feeling disappointed. It was a huge “a ha” moment for me. I was letting my emails or lack of emails drive my self-worth. Clearly that was a losing proposition and I needed to break the habit. I took a cold turkey approach and deleted my work email off my phone that moment. Like any addiction, it took some time for me to be comfortable with giving up this habit. A couple of tips if you are trying to make this change:
- If you also are getting emotional value from checking email after work, reflect what that is and how else you could fill it. For me, this meant spending more time with my partner and friends and using my leisure time to learn and research about other things that I was passionate about outside of work.
- A big obstacle to not checking email after work is the question “but what if there is something really important that I need to know about?”. I have two solutions to this:
- First, do mini-experiments to test this assumption. Turn off your email on your phone for one evening and don’t let yourself check it until the next morning no matter what. Did something major happen during that time? Was everyone waiting for your response at 2am? Usually not. Keep building this up to a day, a weekend, or even a vacation!
- Second, be clear with your co-workers, boss, and work contacts. I always tell people, if there is an emergency – call or text me, don’t email. If you are out of the office, set up your out of office message on your email and phone. Anticipate emergencies ahead of time and communicate about what you want to be looped into and who is covering what in your absence.
Which leads me to-
Phase 2: INTENTIONAL EMAIL CHECKING
This phase is the one I still am in most of the time. I broke the habit of needing to check my email on my phone all the time. However, I do still have email on my phone, because I find it practical and useful. And I do check email at home and while on vacation, but I do it by choice and when I am in the right headspace. Here’s what this looks like in practice:
- I will typically check email at least once before I get into the office in the morning. This is usually not while I am lying in bed, but either while I’m eating breakfast or on public transit. This check has a very specific function: scan for any time sensitive issues that might require adjusting my day and respond to any emails that require a very quick one or two sentence response. Anything more complicated than that, I will mark as unread, so I know they still need to be addressed later.
- I check email frequently through my workday while I am on the go between meetings. This isn’t technically checking while I am not at work, but I think it is worth mentioning.
- I will do a similar check to the morning check sometime later in the evening. In my line of work, there is a lot going on in the evenings and weekends, so there is a decent amount of email traffic in the evenings that I try to stay somewhat caught up on. I avoid checking anytime close to bed and definitely not after I’ve already gotten ready for bed.
- I’ll check a couple of times over the weekend when I am in a good mindset and place where I could possibly be responsive- so for example, maybe in the morning after drinking coffee at home, but definitely not when I’m in line at the grocery store.
- Depending on what is going on I’ll do a similar approach on vacations. If I know there is a lot of activity happening that I might want to weigh in on, I’ll choose very specific intentional times to do a check in. I usually try to make sure that this is a time when I can be alone and focus in on something if needed.
- If I have ideas of emails to send after hours, I try to save those as drafts, unless it is truly an emergency. But per my own rule, if it is an emergency, as I said before, I will call or text instead of email.
This approach is generally effective. I think I email after hours less than most of my co-workers, but because I have other good productivity and organizational methods in place while at work, I am able to still keep up with everything I need to. I think the trade-off of being really focused when I’m reading emails weighs out being extremely timely. That might not be possible for every job, so good to check expectations of your workplace and adjust accordingly.
While functional and thoughtful, the problem with this approach is that while I’ve put good boundaries in place, ultimately, I still feel a decent amount of anxiety about email and have an avoidance mindset towards it. While leads me to-
Phase 3: ZEN EMAIL CHECKING
First, a huge caveat that this is still a work in progress. But while I have been doing other thought work and CBT exercises, I decided to start thinking about my relationship with checking work email. I no longer have a compulsive need to check it, but it is something that I dread- I feel like it is just sitting there demanding I pay attention to it while I willfully ignore it. This needed some exploration and I decided to really delve into why I felt a sense of dread about it and what my automatic thoughts where. A couple that came to mind:
- “There’s probably some difficult problem that someone is telling me about that I’m going to need to fix and I won’t know how”
- “Someone is going to say something that is going to make me angry and then it will ruin my day because I’m going to fixate on it”
- “What if I screwed something up or forgot something – then I will read it and beat myself and feel really guilty even though there is nothing I can do right now”
- “Everyone else is working right now and I should be too. Good employees should be working all the time and people are judging me for not responding”
Ack! Do you recognize any distorted negative thinking in there? On the one hand, limiting email helps me avoid some negative emotional states, but on the other hand, I have a lot of negative thoughts about it that are triggered and perhaps even intensified by avoiding it. What has helped me start to move away from this is the thought: “Any email I get, no matter how upsetting the content might be, is something that I can choose how I respond emotionally to”. And then I practice this.
If I get an email that triggers a stressful or negative emotion, I work it through the three-column technique. This takes time at first, but I’ve started to gain more and more confidence and belief in the statement bolded above as I’ve seen positive results. My ideal relationship with email right now would be that I could get extremely stressful news in an email right before I walk down the aisle of my wedding and still be able to let it not affect my emotional state (don’t worry Mom, I’m not actually going to try that one!).
I still want to keep boundaries for checking in place, but for the sole purpose of having fully present attention and energy in other areas outside of work, not because I’m scared of what I might find if I check. Is this idealistic? Perhaps, but I’m thrilled at the prospect of making this a reality and the freedom and sense of relief I might feel in my life if I can practice it.
So, which phase looks most like your relationship to work email? Or are there others I have not considered yet but may experience some day?
Take Action! Write down on a piece of paper when and how you want to be checking email outside of work in a perfect world. Do a mini-experiment and try this out for one day or one week if you are feeling brave. Communicate your plans to your co-workers or family if needed and report back here on what you’ve found!