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Control your email addiction by ... checking more often!

I'm just like most people when it comes to email: It's addicting and tempts me to do all those anti-productivity things I know I shouldn't do, like checking every 10 minutes (not batching) and "cherry picking" messages - ones that are fun, easy, etc. (not processing one at a time with no skipping until empty). While playing around with Gmail tools I discovered something simple that's been surprisingly helpful so far, but runs counter to common email advice.

First let's define some terms, then get into the details.

I propose breaking email inbox activity into three categories:

  • Emptying: The standard "Base Zero" activity of examining each message in turn, deciding action, then dispatching it to another folder or the trash. GTD-ers will recognize this as Allen's Processing & Organizing phase. It's focused and highly productive. The goal: Empty the inbox as fast as possible.
  • Monitoring: A triage [1] activity involving scanning unread messages, looking at the sender and the subject, and quickly pushing it through your action pipeline. The goal: Answer for for each unread message, "Is it truly urgent, or will it keep until my next emptying?"
  • Checking: An ineffectual scanning, like Monitoring, where you think about each message, make a partial decision, then move onto the next one without acting. In other words, processing then unprocessing. AKA "grazing," this is what most people do, and it wastes your brainpower.

The general idea of the technique is to embrace the urge to frequently "get a fix" by making it easy to Monitor, more difficult to actually jump in, and easier to focus on single urgent messages, rather than getting sucked into the email black whole. Do this via a desktop widget that lists all unread messages' senders and subjects. (I used Google's Gmail dashboard widget for the Mac, but there are Windows ones such as GMail Monitor.) To apply the method simply invoke the thing when you get the urge to check. When you identify an urgent message, dispatch only that one then return your project work where you left off. Check as often as you need, but your focus is to: check, identify, handle, and return. Remember this via the handy mnemonic, CIHAR, as in "Chi, the 22nd letter of the Greek alphabet, gives me a chuckle - a hardy har har." (A joke, folks. We consultants apparently each need our own silly acronym.)

What I discovered is that by satisfying my urge to check, the monitoring tool gives me a few seconds of space to pause and consider whether I really need to deal with it right now, or whether it can wait. This intermediate step made me more discerning in whether to jump into email, and more likely to get back to work. If I decide to handle the message, I do so efficiently, move it out, and get back on task while resisting the magnetic attraction of other messages.

Why does this help? It might be explained by the New York Times article Tighten Your Belt, Strengthen Your Mind, which discusses the limits of willpower [2].

Additional points:

  • The tool is not a notifier - it doesn't interrupt on its own. It leaves that to you ;-)
  • It must be lightening-fast to invoke it. On my computer, one keystroke. My process: Hit F11, scan quickly, then either click on and process, or F11 again to close.
  • One risk is picking off the easy or interesting ones, and procrastinating on the difficult or important ones.

I'm curious...

  • Have you tried anything like this? How'd it work out?
  • How does my three-category breakdown of email behavior sound? What's your version?
  • Do you buy the willpower explanation?
  • How often do you check?

Think, Try, Learn angle

Try this experiment: Use the method for a week, record your observations, then report back in a comment here or email me. Bonus: Create an Edison account (30 seconds) and track it there so we can support you and learn from your experience.

(Side note: Here's a tool opportunity: Have it count invocations/hour. I bet you'd be surprised at how high it is. Any guesses?)


  • [1] From the Wikipedia Triage article: "This rations patient treatment efficiently when resources are insufficient for all to be treated immediately. The term comes from the French verb trier, meaning to separate, sort, sift or select."
  • [2] Excerpts: "The brain has a limited capacity for self-regulation, so exerting willpower in one area often leads to backsliding in others. ... The brain's store of willpower is depleted when people control their thoughts, feelings or impulses, or when they modify their behavior in pursuit of goals. ... Psychologist Roy Baumeister and others have found that people who successfully accomplish one task requiring self-control are less persistent on a second, seemingly unrelated task."

Reader Comments (12)

Isn't this just procrastination, albeit qualified procrastination? Per Tim Ferris, what is the magnitude of things you'd lose by checking email in two hours rather than right now?

Caveat: What if you're hung up waiting for an email reply? I currently use gmail only as an archive, and it gets BCCed/forwarded to automatically, then marks everything read using filters. I can therefore go to gmail and search for (new) emails from a certain person without seeing my Inbox. Maybe there's a way to do this with gmail alone, such as with a custom tag? I don't spend much time in gmail.

August 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBrock Tice

Hi Matt, your blog entries always get me thinking, thank you for that. I have included links here, not to big-up myself but to provide deeper information to the debate.

I have found, over time, that there is no shortcut and no trick to exercising mastery over the inbox. Similarly, there is no tool that will do it for us.
Most time management tools are what I call 'Exercise Bikes' - things we invest in to do something for us. The problem is that the exercise bike can too easily become a very expensive clothes hanger, then an embarrassment until it is sold on Ebay at a loss! Tools won't do it for us - we HAVE to do it for ourselves.

Email rewards reactivity - and that's a real human issue. See my blog entry about this here:

If we go back to first principles, one of the most effective ways to manage our inbox is by applying a 4D decision making approach on all new emails. This is outlined fully here - and is in accordance with the philosophy of GTD, First Things First and other respected methodologies:
People who find it difficult to make a strict 4D cut might find the addition of a 5th D useful - details here:
My kind regards

August 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRichard Maybury

And thanks for the honor.

August 28, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Thanks for the comment, Mark. I agree with your two points, summarized above. No problem with the links - relevant self-promotion is OK ;-) I'll have a look at your articles.

August 28, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

smart procrastination?

Good one - made me think, Brock (as usual :-)

I don't think it's procrastination. It's prioritization and deferring. What's the difference? Here's a definition from [ Procrastinating Again? How to Kick the Habit | http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=procrastinating-again&print=true ]:

Procrastination = voluntarily delaying an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay

I think the key phrase is "worse off." I'm OK calling it structured procrastination, qualified procrastination, mature procrastination, etc, as long as it's conscious. So maybe it's an issue of semantics. FYI the common reference for structured procrastination is [ here | http://www.structuredprocrastination.com/ ]. However, the idea is put forth much earlier and humorously in [ How to Get Things Done (1949) | http://hackvan.com/pub/stig/etext/how-to-get-things-done-despite-procrastination.txt ].

Instead of putting [the most important items] first on the list, I put them last. My eye catches [the easier work]... I am soon hard at work [on it]. before he knows it, the easier stuff is done, and he returns to the harder one, which he works on a tiny bit more. then drawn to the next easiest thing. Tomorrow I will do the [hard one], and no fooling this time. ... The only trouble is that, at this rate, I will soon run out of things to do, and will be forced to get at my newspaper articles the first thing Monday morning.

To do this via the daily planning routine I teach: 1) Create daily plan, 2) gather visible artifacts corresonding to those actions (stickies!), 3) apply method using zero other distractions. (or something)

Per Tim Ferris, what is the magnitude of things you'd lose by checking email in two hours rather than right now?

That's the second reference to Ferris! It's good to know he's covering some of the same ground as me. I'd love a link if you have it.

Caveat: What if you're hung up waiting for an email reply?

Hmm. Isn't that standard GTD? Put it on Waiting For with date delegated, then monitor that list and follow up as needed. Monitoring will pick up the reply, if it happens, but the list is the reminder. I'm probably not getting your point...

I currently use gmail only as an archive, and it gets BCCed/forwarded to automatically, then marks everything read using filters. I can therefore go to gmail and search for (new) emails from a certain person without seeing my Inbox. Maybe there's a way to do this with gmail alone, such as with a custom tag? I don't spend much time in gmail.

Are you wondering how to use the Mac tool I referred to in the context of your use of Gmail as strictly an archive tool? I don't see how. The tool shows only unread messages, and your filter marks them right away. Leaving them unread means a manual scan. What's the email program you use?

Thanks for the comment, Brock.

August 28, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

WWTFD? (what would tim ferriss do?) and what about facebook and rss feeds?!

I mean in his 4-hr-workweek book (or is it his Low-Information-Diet PDF?)... how he urges people to check email very little (once or twice a day, with a vacation reminder set that notes this fact, and giving various phone numbers to call if urgent). i'm not sure what his suggestion was or would be for the willpower issue.

One idea that ... Read Morecomes to me... from his Twitter advice is to use leechblock to block gmail (and facebook, twitter, and bloglines, whatever... yelp.com, if that's what you're addicted to!) in your favorite browser during certain times. If you really need to use email, use a different browser or unblock, but you have to go thru extra steps that will maybe prevent it. And I would say... consider also having separate work and personal email accounts, not just filters.


August 28, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Thanks for clarifying, Erik. I think I see the parallels (and differences):

Principled reply: We agree - Focus on your task, a quick post (email equivalent: a quick reply), then back to work.

Monitor throughout the day as the urge strikes you: He recommends the opposite: batch (5pm), and *don't* use TweetDeck et al.

Collecting data: We agree. He says "track usage and then set alerts, which is how I measured the increase and reigned in overuse."

August 28, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Hey Matthew,

Your post are great and I really have what to learn. Sharing your personal
experience with us it's a great thing. Thanks! I hope you'll post more
GTD news, I'm really interested on these.
Keep walking!


September 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterHelen

Been a delay lately, but I'll be back online soon. Thanks for reading.

September 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

After reading your article I realized that I am addicted to email and to instant messaging. I have a mini macbook, a blackberry and a PDA, all of them have 3G wireless internet and I use each of them to check my email 20-30 times per day. Do you think I should join a [ drug treatment center | http://www.axishouse.net/ ] for my habits? Or maybe I'm just gonna buy a "medicinal" iPad and enjoy my addiction further.

February 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJasmine
Hello, Jasmine. Wikipedia defines /negative addiction/ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Addiction : a detrimental habit--where the benefits are not worth the costs. So the first question I'd ask is how much this is impacting your life, i.e., what are the costs? That should be your focus. If you decide you need a change, start researching the literature for DIY approaches. Here are a few links I found: Finding a Cure for Email Addiction [http://www.clickz.com/839041 ] , E-Mail Addiction: Five Signs You Need Help [http://www.pcworld.com/article/150928/email_addiction_five_signs_you_need_help.html ], and How to Delete Email Addiction [http://thinksimplenow.com/productivity/how-to-delete-email-addiction/ ]. Beyond those, the bigger category is changing behaviors (breaking habits). There's a lot of literature on the subject, such as Behavior Change in the New Year: Change your environment.

Another suggestion might be a simple tracking exercise, based on the idea that simple data collection is nonthreatening, but can lead to insights and behavior changes. My guide Where the !@#% did my day go? [http://matthewcornell.org/products.html#where-did-my-day-go ] shows how to do these in the context of daily planning. It might help.

Thank you for writing. Good luck with it, and let me know how it goes. Maybe we can help others with what you discover! (Track your experiments in Edison if you want some Think, Try, Learn support.)
October 3, 2010 | Registered CommenterMatthew Cornell
[from http://thedailyreviewer.com/top/gtd ]:

Congratulations! Our selection committee compiled an exclusive list of the Top 100 GTD Blogs, and yours was included! Check it out at http://thedailyreviewer.com/top/gtd

You can claim your Top 100 Blogs Award Badge at http://thedailyreviewer.com/blog/8097
October 3, 2010 | Registered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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