Check vs. Process Emails

Written by Azat Mardan

I stopped saying “I’m checking my email”, because I almost never check them. That’s true. I stopped checking my emails a few years ago, and it brought more focus, fun and productivity to my life.

Instead of checking my emails, I process them. What is the difference? Checking is looking at the inbox, fishing for urgent, filtering non-urgent and plain spam but answering only to urgent. This will make you seem like a very responsive person to senders, but most of the times they can wait a few hours or even a few days. If they are your clients or employees, then they’ll learn to batch items and not treat email like an IM, or write only as the last resort after they took a stub at or googled a question they want to ask.

Processing on the other hand is dealing with all emails from first to last. It’s inbox 0, but I take it to extreme. In the productivity method called Get Things Done (GTD), the author of the method recommends to respond to an email if it’s less that 2 minutes. I process an email which I estimate would take under 30 minutes right away. The reason is that I don’t want to star an email or move it to my todo list. I’ll be harder to come back to it. I’m already in the context by reading it, so I will benefit from not having a context switch. I take care of the email and the task right there.

A few words about mobile email processing. Sorry, but it’s not possible in most cases. Okay, maybe your work and life is different. Maybe all you need is your brain and a few sentences of reply in most of the cases. My work and life require me to have at my disposal developer tools, writing and publishing apps, calendar, word processor, etc. Therefore, I never process emails on my phone. Yes, I still do have the app to get some useful information like a travel itinerary but that’s it. Whatever time is gained by me filtering out quick responses and dealing with them at a Starbucks line is lost by the cognitive load of task switching and open loops of myriads of unfinished tasks marked by stars, flags and (worse) unread to move it back to inbox.

Human brains are wired for novelty so we see the thrill of new urgent emails and avoid non-urgent or boring. Casinos exploit this trait in their slot machines. Email apps and slot machine even have the same motion downwards: scroll down the inbox and pull down a lever.

It take longer to process emails than to check them once. However, processing is faster than checking emails over and over, and then one more time when you doing the task asked in the email. That’s what usually happens. All those unclosed loops overwhelm us. Argh.

Liberate yourself. Start processing instead of checking. I process my personal emails only once a day or ever every other day when I’m traveling. I love it.