Getting Off the Email Hamster Wheel in 5 Steps

Originally posted on 

Email addiction is real. You’ve probably read about it here, here, or here. Chances are you have experienced or are now experiencing email addiction. The symptoms include:

  • Having your email app opened/pinned or push notifications on at all times
  • Checking, responding to, or composing work email every free minute of every day
  • Using email as your default swiss-army-file-storage-to-do-list-mass-comm-project-tracking-problem-solving-dispute-mediating tool
  • Falling behind on emails just as soon as you get to the bottom of your inbox
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Why is this bad?

Doing emails feel like work, but email not work. Email is meta-work: task is meant to enable further productivity. However, email often steals away valuable time instead. Getting stuck on the email hamster wheel have negative impacts like:

  • Making you feel productive with small dopamine hits, but isn’t actually helping you get work done (thanks, cult of inbox zero!)
  • Favoring urgency (quick reaction) instead importance (big impact) due to the instantaneousness of the format
  • Sending emails often creates more work

This last point is important. I’ve often found myself “catching-up on emails” on weekends, and while I felt like productivity, the only things that weekend emailing produced were more weekend emails. Coworkers see your emails on the weekends, respond, and just like that, you have more emails. It’s a vicious cycle of meta-work.

How to Get Off the Hamster Wheel Without Losing Control

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I’m going to miss an important email from my boss.

Someone is going reply to a mass email chain with an idea before I can.

Coworkers are going to think I’m lazy.

These among many other (substantiated and unsubstantiated) fears are probably popping up as you read. Through personal experience, I was able to get off that hamster wheel safely without any of the fears above manifesting.

Follow the 5 steps to email bliss (make sure you take all 5 steps; many people I have spoken to fail because they only take step 3).

Step 1: Set Expectations with People Around You

This is the first and most critical step: tell your manager, team members, and other immediate coworkers that you will be only be checking emails at specific times. The key here is to make sure they understand that even though you aren’t on emails, you are still responsive and available. To do this, I had set the following expectations:

  1. I will only check emails 2–3 times a day, but you should still expect me to respond to most emails within 24-hours
  2. For anything timely that can’t wait until the next day, reach me via IM (e.g. Google Hangouts, Slack, HipChat)
  3. For anything truly urgent, call or text me

This series of escalation steps made it clear to everyone around me that I am still readily available. However, these expectations require that everyone thinks critically about priorities when trying to figure how best to reach me.

Of course, if you aren’t already, you will have to be extra responsive via IM or text.

Step 2: Set Your Work Environment Up for Success

The key to this step is to remove all temptations to go into your inbox rabbit hole. There are about a thousand triggers built into our email applications that want you to check them impulsively. Here are some key actions everyone should take immediately:

  • Turn off your phone’s email notifications
  • Close your email app on your computer/browser

To further ensure you’re setting yourself up for success, try these progressively intense suggestions and tactics:

  • Mild email addiction: install apps or browser extensions that allow you to access certain email features (like composing an email) without going showing you the inbox
  • Substantial email addiction: install apps or browser extension that totally block certain sites/apps to make it harder to access your inbox
  • Severe email addiction: authorize your coworkers and desk mates to make you put a dollar in an “email jar” every time they catch you using email outside of the designated times (works well if a group is fighting addiction together)
  • Extreme email addiction: buy a shock bracelet and program it to shock you when you access email (I had a friend who used this to control a Reddit addiction)

Feel free to get creative with whatever can help tilt the scale in your favor. If you’re in a role where quick response to inbound messages is a key metric (e.g. consulting, sales, customer service, BD, account management), consider setting up filters or other systems that parse out the valuable signals from the noise of your inbox.

Step 3: Carve Out Some Flex Time to Check Email

This is the obvious step, though most people jump right to this step without setting up some of the systems above.

For me, checking about 2–3 times during the day worked really well — you can adjust up or down according to the cadence of your role, team, or company. My three time slots were:

  1. As much time as necessary first thing in the morning. I like to get in at least 1 hour before my first meeting.
  2. Optional 30-minutes mid-day as time permits, preferably after I’ve had lunch so email doesn’t take over any fuel stops (forgetting to eat lunch seems like a growing problem at startups, despite all the free food!).
  3. As much time as necessary right after my last meeting of the day.

As you may notice, these are dynamic blocks that work around my schedule. Having a bit of flexibility means you are less likely to break the habit, similar to having a cheat day during a diet.

An added bonus to setting time aside for emails: you will be less compelled to check your emails during off hours, whether it be in the evening at home or in bed first thing in the morning.

Step 4: Tune Your Email Checking to Your Daily Energy Cycles

Once I got into a cadence of specific time slots, I found myself optimizing the effectiveness of each time slot based on my energy level throughout the day. For example:

  1. I’m a morning person, so I reserve my big reply-alls for my morning time slot, especially since letting complex problems stew in my mind overnight usually translates to better solutions.
  2. Because the optional mid-day check is only 30-minutes, it’s reserved to glancing at my inbox for important threads based on subject lines, thread length, and CC group size. I only open the threads that require my immediate attention.
  3. When I have the lowest energy and attention span after a day of meetings, my focus during the last time slot is to read through all of the unread emails to quickly sort/categorize them into 3 buckets: A) emails I need to read but don’t have to respond to, B) emails I can respond quickly to with no more than 3 sentences, and C) emails for which I have to compose a long response. As I read through, bucket A requires no further action, bucket B is responded to on-the-spot, and bucket C is marked for response the next morning after I’m recharged.

Of course, there is always going to be that occasional email that goes into bucket F (i.e. the f*ck bucket) but having a robust system means you can recover from any irregularities quickly without skipping a beat.

Step 5: Optimize Your Email Habits to be Even More Efficient

Once you’ve figured out the cadence and systems that work for you, you can continue to make your process more efficient since the ultimate goal is to waste less time on emails (i.e. effectiveness before efficiency).

Here are some examples of clever apps and UX that I have started to leverage over time:

  • Using keyboard shortcuts to quickly batch process emails (archive, mark as important, reply) — this is great for the mid-day or end-of-day email checks
  • Taking advantage of the swiping, scrolling, skipping, or nesting features to quickly go through all threads without going back to the inbox for every message
  • Using only my phone for the mid-day or end-of-day email checks (even if I’m at my desk) because it keeps me from typing out long responses

Potential Step 0: Fighting the Inertia of the Hamster Wheel with a Catalyst

The more momentum is on your hamster wheel, the harder it will be to get off safely. Lots of pressure from different directions may be used to justify staying on the wheel just a bit longer.

To enable a safe dismount from the hamster wheel, you may need a substantial catalyst, like a set deadline to get away from day-to-day work for a bit. For me, this happened in the form of a 2-week off-the-grid vacation I had been planning for months.

The Results and the Lessons

Putting these habits in place over a few weeks of experimentation yielded a transformative experience for me and my career. Better email habits earned me the necessary room to prioritize and think critically during my work day. I was about to resolve problems and generate insights at a far greater frequency and higher quality than before.

I also found that a good chuck of email threads would resolve themselves even without my input.

Most importantly, the lesson that stuck with me most: things are simply not as urgent as they seem, and it takes a surprising amount of distance to see that.

Now imagine if an entire team or organization adapted these email habits — it would have a multiplier effect on productivity because everyone would be generating and responding to fewer unnecessary emails. Once something like this becomes the organization norm, a team focus everyone’s energy on much larger and more valuable problems.

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What won’t be fixed even if you improve your email habits…

At the most fundamental level, email is a method of communication (albeit an ineffective and inefficient medium). For every benefit realized by better email habits, there are probably as many underlying organizational communication issues highlighted by those habits. I was lucky enough to be in a highly functional organization that provided a safe landing from the hamster wheel. However, many bad email habits can be attributed to root causes such as:

  • Poor communications: lack of shared vocabulary, mission, or vision among groups of people
  • Poor relationships: culture of resolving conflicts with escalations (e.g. looping in an executive for back-up)
  • Poor meeting habits: unwillingness to schedule or ineffectiveness in running productive meetings
  • Poor responsibility/accountability definitions: over-your-ass behavior to make sure discussions and responses are “on-the-record”
  • Poor culture: organizational tolerance for grand-standing, credit-claiming, or general politicking

Even better email habits will not fix the organizational or cultural issues above, but it will enable to see and address the underlying issues.

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No hamsters were harmed in the making of this post.

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