Three Rules for Email

In order for email to have less control over your life, you need to start to take control of it, argues Tanya Golash-Boza.

February 5, 2016

Email has become a fact of life for academics. We all know that it facilitates communication, yet it can also be a tremendous distraction. As a tenured professor with more than my share of committee work and students, I receive about 100 emails every weekday. Without a system to respond to them, I would quickly fall behind. Instead, I finish out each week with a zero inbox. (See more about that here.)

If you are not ready to take the plunge and get to a zero inbox, you can still minimize the extent to which email controls your day. I offer three rules that will help you manage your email on a daily basis.

Rule #1: Don’t check your email first thing in the morning. I bet you have heard (and ignored) this advice. Many of us roll over in bed each morning, pick up our smartphones and begin scrolling through our email before doing anything else. I will admit it: I do it at times, as well, even though I know I shouldn’t.

But when you check your email first thing in the morning, you are attending to everyone else’s needs before even thinking about what is most important for you to accomplish that day. When you check your email, you are reminded of the paperwork you need to finish for grant applications, the papers you need to grade for classes, the bills you mustn’t forget to pay and the sibling you need to call, among other concerns. Because of the way memory works by association, each email that you open, or even delete, brings a flood of thoughts to your head.

Wouldn’t it be nice to wake up in the morning and see what thoughts come to your head if you don’t check your email first thing? Wouldn’t it be lovely to wake up your kids and have your coffee without thinking about the many mundane and stressful tasks that await you? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to sit and ponder what you’d like to accomplish in the day before finding out six new things people want you to do? Wouldn’t it be amazing to meditate first thing in the morning?

Usually, when we check our email, we are reminded of all of the tasks we need to accomplish, which can be distracting. Sometimes, however, email can provoke much stronger emotions. On rare occasions, these emails are great news: a book contract, acceptance of an article or an invitation to give a talk with a great honorarium. Other times, we get much less pleasant news via email: a student questioning a grade, a superior asking us to serve on yet another committee or some other request that somehow raises our ire. If you check your email first thing in the morning, you are opening a Pandora’s box and might find a message in there that could completely derail your day.

Wouldn’t you like to start your day focusing on something you see as valuable and important before opening those floodgates?

Instead of opening your email first thing in the morning, set aside a specific time of morning when you will dedicate 30 minutes or an hour to respond to important emails. Then set aside another time in the afternoon when you will take care of the remaining emails. In other words, respond to your emails intentionally instead of each time you get an email notification.

Rule #2: Close your email and all notifications while you are writing. Of course, you need to check email at some point during the day to manage the massive influx. That, however, does not mean that you need to check it all the time. You certainly do not need to check email while you are writing.

To write, you need to focus. To focus, you need to avoid distraction. Imagine yourself fully immersed in thought and composing the perfect sentence when you catch a glimpse of a notification on your computer or hear a little buzz from your phone. Now, instead of focusing on your writing, you are reminded of other tasks that you must complete -- emotions that you feel with regard to certain people or worries you have over a pending deadline.

The solution to this is pretty straightforward: turn off those notifications. Both your phone and your computer should have “Do not disturb” settings. On a Mac, you can turn off all notifications under “Settings.” Your phone, your tablet and your PC should have similar options.

If you set aside 30 minutes or an hour each day to write, you can give yourself permission to be unavailable over phone, email or social media during that time. If you teach, I presume you turn off your phone during that time. Do the same when you are writing.

It may seem productive to be multitasking: alternately responding to emails, checking your social media, writing and preparing class all at the same time. However, it is not. It is much more productive to set aside specific times of the day for each task, giving it your undivided attention. (I explain one way to do this here.)

Rule #3: Unplug every night. Decide on a time each evening when you will unplug yourself from the Internet. Just as it is not a good idea for you to be on your screen first thing in the morning, it also is not a good idea for you to be on your screen just before going to bed.

I recommend that about an hour before your bedtime, you put your laptop, tablet and phone away. If possible, keep all those devices out of your bedroom. At the very least, keep them out of arm’s reach when you are in bed.

In order to have a restful night of sleep, you need time away from devices that light up. Scientists have found that these devices send a subtle signal to your brain that it is not yet time to sleep.

These devices also send much less subtle signals. You may be just about to go to bed when you decide to check your email one last time, only to find out that your latest paper has been rejected. Now, instead of peacefully going to sleep, you toss and turn all night worrying about your publication record. Just because we now can get news instantaneously does not mean we should.

In sum, in order for email to have less control over your life, you need to start to take control of it. This article has provided three ideas for how you can establish boundaries. I’d love to hear from you about other ways you’ve found to be helpful in setting them.


Tanya Golash-Boza is an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Merced. Her most recent book is Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor and Global Capitalism. She runs the blog Get a Life, PhD and tweets @tanyaboza.


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