email overwhelmAs a busy entrepreneur it seems my time is never my own. There’s always something that needs doing, contacts to make, people who need stuff…and the emails are endless.

When I get overwhelmed I often think back to what life was like before email, when this thing called ‘snail mail’ was our main method of transfering information. That or a phone call. Do you remember those days?

We didn’t think much about waiting days or weeks for the letter to arrive. And if we called someone and they weren’t there, we waited for them to call us back. And we went with it. The pace was …different.

I also reminisce about life before the smart phone when you actually had to log on to your computer before you could check email. Nowadays we’re all carrying our personal computers in our purse or pocket. Never beyond an arms reach away, our phones keep us connected to the world 24/7. Otherwise, imagine what we’d be missing?

But then again maybe we’ve got it all wrong? These days I think we’re missing out on a whole lot more because we’re so addicted to ‘checking in’. FOMO (fear of missing out) means we’re guided by our devices from the very start of every day, and it’s messing with our productivity, life-balance and focus.

A study done by Good Technology magazine suggested that as many as 68 percent of people check their work emails before 8 a.m. (50% of them before even getting out of bed). The average person first checks their phone around 7:09 a.m. In my world that’s even before coffee.

The question that comes up for me is whether or not this is the best way to enter into the day. I know the answer to that. It’s not, and I could share a long list of reasons why but I’m going to limit myself to the top three reasons why checking your email first thing is the wrong thing.

1) It’s a Productivity Killer

Our a.m. time is usually our most productive and creative time of the day. The sleep you just had has bathed your brain in fluids that have cleared away the junk, and let clarity in… so the work you do first thing may well be the best of your day. Why waste that on email?

Through some of the interviews I’ve conducted around The Energy Habits of High-Performing People, it’s clear that high-performers take that morning time very seriously, protecting the first minutes and hours of the day for focused work.

Vern Kimball, past CEO of The Calgary Stampede labels his morning routine “My Time, My Way.” He said “Once I get into the office my time is no longer my own, so I take anywhere from 10 minutes to 2 hours to get clear on what I need to accomplish, and when time allows, I start on the first.” He admitted to sometimes using that time to check email as, but never first.

ACTION: Take even 30 minutes to set your intentions for the day and start on one of your more important tasks. Email will wait. People will understand. You won’t miss out.

2) It’s Not About You

Your morning time should be all about things you want and need to get done: a selfish attention to what is important to you today. Sure you could argue that email is important but that’s a cop-out as far as I’m concerned.

As soon as you give in to the lure (a.k.a. addiction) of email, you give control to the beast. Now, instead of guiding your own path forward, you’re being pulled in the direction of whatever request has infiltrated your inbox overnight. It could be an email that takes moments to respond to, or it could be a problem that has now hijacked your attention, but the focus has turned away from you. You’re now doing something for someone else and not yourself. You see, what’s happening here?

In a recent conversation with one of my coaching clients – a young lawyer and busy entrepreneur – she admitted that she used to sit down at her home-office computer to check emails first-thing, and before she knew it the clock read 10:30, she hadn’t eaten, had tea, or done anything to take care of herself. Now her morning routine focuses on breakfast, a cup of tea and a book (non-work-related)…before email. She says it sets her up for a happier more productive day.

ACTION: Before you check email do at least one thing on that important to-do list. Give yourself an hour, 30 minutes … and if you feel the need to gradually ween yourself off ‘first thing email’ start with ten minutes.

Yes, even 10 minutes of e-mail-free laser focus will set you up for on-going success in your day. Don’t believe me? Give it a try. Make it about you.

3) It’s a Cop Out for Doing the Real Work

“But my email is important!” Yeah I heard you the first 5 times, it’s important. But so is that proposal, or that batch of invoicing. So is the reading you do to deepen your learning. Hey, exercise is also important … or 10 minutes of meditation, and I’d rather you do any of those things for even a short while to strengthen your capacity to do the work.

Here’s a newsflash for you. Just because our to do’s are important for growing our business doesn’t mean we’ll automatically be thrilled about doing the work. Sales calls are hard. Writing is hard. Invoicing and accounting is painful for some. Creative work is challenging. And you know exercise is the last to make the list if we don’t give it time. But it doesn’t mean that it can be pushed aside. Don’t let email be the pusher.

In his book Do the Work, Steven Pressfield talks about overcoming ‘Resistance’ to the things we want and need to get done. He says:

“The enemy is resistance. The enemy is our chattering brain, which, if we give it so much as a nano-second, will start producing excuses, alibis, transparent self-justifications and a million reasons why we can’t/shouldn’t/won’t do what we know we need to do.”

E-mail is an excuse (a big one) that stops us from doing the work. We tell ourselves that email is important so we can justify pushing the real work aside, but really, email is merely the conduit (or one of them) by which you share your productive work once it’s done. A lot of the time anyway.

ACTION: Pay attention to how often you use email as a distraction or as a “Look-how-busy-I-am” tool. Do the work first (for 10, 30 or 60 minutes) and use email as your post-work reward, or as your distribution channel for your completed efforts.

Truth: email is an essential part of our lives and it’s not going anywhere soon. Yet as email and its presence in our lives becomes more and more endemic it’s important to remember that we can control its infiltration on our terms. It doesn’t have to take over our lives if we choose otherwise.

And on the days when email has to take first priority (when you’re waiting on something important or someone has said they would reach out), check, but keep it brief. Look for the specific item you need, stick to a time limit, and then give yourself the gift of morning focus to do the work.