Breaking E-mail Addiction

I am reading The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss. He’s only twenty-nine-years old, but wise beyond his years. This is probably the best book I have read on productivity since Getting Things Done by David Allen. I highly recommend it.

man glued to his computer screen

Tim says,

… limit e-mail consumption and production. This is the greatest single interruption in the modern world.”

He’s right. It is amazing how distracting e-mail can be.

Does this sound familiar? You are working on an important project and you get a notice that you have received an e-mail message. What do you do? You stop what you are doing to read the message, despite the fact that this can totally derail you from your current task.

The worst part is that people go through their entire day like this. No sooner are they engaged in doing something important and meaningful and—da-ding!—they get a notice that they have received a new e-mail.

They stop what they are doing, switch to their inbox, and read some inane e-mail that contributes nothing to their current priorities or the project at hand. What makes us do this? This is border-line neurotic behavior. I should know. I suffer from the disease myself.

If you keep doing this long enough—let’s be honest here—it makes you A.D.D. You stay busy all day long and have virtually nothing to show for it at the end of the day. Can we agree to stop the madness?

Based on Tim’s advice, I have resolved to check e-mail only twice a day. It is already having an enormous impact. Here’s what I suggest:

  1. Work on your computer in “offline” mode. You don’t need to be notified when you receive a new e-mail. People can wait. Yes, even your boss.

    Instead, let messages accumulate in your inbox and then batch process a whole bunch of messages at once. For example, I’m on a plane now. I downloaded my messages just before we boarded in Dallas. I have processed 68 messages in 45 minutes, and generated 21 replies. I am now writing this post. It took 30 minutes.

    If I had dealt with these in real-time, as they landed in my inbox, it would have likely taken two to three times as long. Why? Because my attention would be divided between my e-mail and all the other things yapping for attention on my desk.

  2. Only check e-mail twice a day. I mean really … isn’t this sufficient? Again, with Tim’s encouragement, I created an out-of-the-office message that says this:


    In an effort to increase productivity and efficiency I am beginning a new personal e-mail policy. I’ve recently realized I spend more time shuffling through my inbox and less time focused on the task at hand. It has become an unnecessary distraction that ultimately creates longer lead times on my ever-growing “to do” list. In the end, it doesn’t serve either of us.

    As a result, I will only be checking and responding to email twice a day—at mid-day and then at the end of the workday. I will try and respond to email in a timely manner so that my new policy doesn’t keep you from getting what you need.

    If you need an immediate, time-sensitive response—and your request is truly urgent—call Vicki Parr, my assistant, at (555) 555-5555. She will hunt me down and get you the answer you need.

    Hopefully, this new approach to e-mail management will result in shorter lead times for you with more focused and creative work for me.

    Kind regards,


    P.S. I do not check e-mail on the weekends. If you have an emergency on the weekend, please call my cell phone.”

    I am only a few days into it, but already I feel amazingly more productive.

  3. Don’t check e-mail first thing in the morning. This has been the most difficult part of my experiment. I am used to checking my e-mail first thing in the morning and last thing at night (and a hundred times in between).

    Instead, I am now focused on getting my two most important daily priorities done first. Before, I would often go days without making any real progress. At best, I was reacting and just trying to stay caught up. Now, I am proacting and making substantial progress on my goals and to-do list items.

My wife, Gail, and my assistant, Vicki, don’t think I can stick with it. They are convinced that I will revert to my old ways. (I think they have a bet going.) We’ll see. One thing is certain: this is going to take some serious discipline.

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