Five Reasons not to Check Email First 8

Richard Whately died in 1863, so it’s safe to say he never used email (not even AOL). Even so, he knew that to check email first thing in the morning was to invite disaster.

Lose an hour in the morning and you will spend all day looking for it.

Checking email first thing in the morning could leave a permanent hole in your day.

My first job out of grad school was with the Utah Symphony. At one point I was the entire marketing department, so as part of my effort to get hyper efficient I set up my computer to turn itself on at 7:54 and launch my email program. This allowed me to step off the bus, walk into my cubicle, and immediately see what had to get done that day.

You read that right—I was waiting until 8:00 to decide what my day’s work should be. Is it any wonder that by the time I left the symphony my work week was sixty hours long and I was totally burned out? Is it any wonder that when I applied to be the Marketing Director, the CEO felt I wasn’t management material?

I couldn’t even manage myself!

Looking at your email first thing in the morning is just about the most damaging thing you can do to your day, and here’s why:

1. Checking email first puts others in charge of your day
Unless you are a person who emails instructions to yourself, your inbox is made up entirely of other peoples’ priorities. When you start your day by opening and acting on email, you are telling yourself and the world that you will do what others tell you to do before you will do the things that are important to you. Executing on your priorities is not selfish, it’s your job. (click here to tweet that)

2. Checking email first is distracting
Yeah, I know…you need to “check in so that you know which fires need to be put out.” I said this to myself for years, but the chances that this morning’s fire is yours to put out are very, very small. Today’s fire drill will be a distraction from your real work…unless you don’t know about it; so be ignorant and work on preventing fires in the first place.

3. Checking email first is lazy
When I was at the symphony, I used my inbox to tell me what to do. It was so much easier than doing the work of planning, prioritizing, and developing discipline.

4. Checking email first is disruptive
Email is connected to the internet and opening your email can lead you down a rabbit hole that will end your productive day before it even begins. To paraphrase Bilbo Baggins, “It’s a dangerous business, checking your email. You click one message, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

5. Checking email first is contagious
If you feel like people expect you to respond to email first thing in the morning, it’s probably because that’s what you do. It’s likely not your fault; others at your company were doing it before you arrived, and once a few people are doing it everyone else has to or risk looking bad. So here’s your chance to stand out: let people know you will not be looking at email first thing in the morning and teach them why. Start a new trend; be the ambitious employee who is willing to throw off the status quo and be truly, proactively productive.

What I Do FirstA challenge
Before you leave the office today, decide what your top priority is for tomorrow, then don’t open your email until it (or a big chunk of it) is done.

Here is a method I have used to get at least one important thing done every day. Before I leave my desk, I write on a small piece of paper one thing that must be done tomorrow and I put it on my keyboard, then I don’t open my email until that thing is done.

I’ve had my say, now here is a question for you: Do you check email first thing in the morning? Why or why not? Please share your insights in the comments below.

8 thoughts on “Five Reasons not to Check Email First

  1. Chris Hess Sep 19,2013 11:29 am

    This is great advice. I’ve often heard it said to do the most important thing in the morning before opening your email. If I don’t know what is most important I often can look at the thing I want to do least…

    I’ve not been very good at this as of late, so thanks for the reminder. I’ve found that when I am doing it, I have a positive energy around completing things that carries through the whole day. Rather than start with a HUGE list of things other people want me to do that I don’t want to do, I start with a feeling of accomplishment knowing I got something done. Then when I get to email, I often breeze right through a bunch of things and don’t think twice about doing them.

    • Kwin Peterson Sep 19,2013 1:20 pm

      So true! Starting your day doing other people’s work can really suck your energy. I like this line by Eric Hoffer: Our greatest weariness comes from work not done.

  2. dfausti66 Sep 26,2013 7:59 am

    I disagree with this blog. Email provides better information about the perspectives of what is actually happening in the world then the news does and without the bias. In my research and observations, priorities can often become obsolete because of shifting perspectives of our target audiences. Information literacy reports that the information we often base priorities upon has an expiration date as to its relevance and application in industry and consumer behaviors. Strategies often become irrelevent due to the speed of changes and agendas. If you have ever watched a political candidate present selling points that used to be relevent and then quickly become irrelevent, you will understand what I mean.

    • Chris Hess Sep 26,2013 12:21 pm

      While I don’t disagree that email can help us keep aware of changing priorities what I have found is that when I check email first I become reactive and tend to only do the things that people are talking about. I could spend HOURS every day doing what other people think is most important but won’t actually ever make progress on the truly important. What I have found works is to set a priority list the night before and do the top thing before I check email. I can’t think of a time where I did something first and then opened my email and realized that I never had to do that thing because it didn’t matter anymore.

    • Kwin Peterson Sep 26,2013 1:45 pm

      To be clear–I’m not down on email, just cautious of it’s dangers. Rapid communication is a real benefit of email in managing strategies.

      That said, I have to point out that each email message is inherently biased because it comes from only one source–the writer; there is no fact-checking, no editorial review, etc. Relying on email to provide your world view can result in a very narrow world view because you are most likely to hear only from your acquaintances, and they are usually people who agree with you.

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  4. Jenny Feb 3,2014 9:40 pm

    Great article. Some of my challenge is that I work in a global team and email the main way we stay in contact outside of our weekly meetings. I really liked how you pointed out that mastering our own thinking about the work we do will lead to the results we really want to achieve.

  5. Kwin Peterson (@KwinPeterson) Feb 3,2014 10:03 pm

    Thanks Jenny. This has been a game changer for me.

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