Email is kind of a problem.

It is so, so easy to let our email inbox run our day. We arrive at work and check our email, taking an hour to respond to the buildup. More emails arrive in the meantime, of course, so we answer these next. We spend the rest of the morning completing tasks contained in those emails.

It can even get worse: some of us spend every waking moment “on the clock,” so to speak, checking and answering work email in the evening and on weekends. We never disconnect, and we feel like we have no choice. This is just the way the world works now.

This has been you, I’m sure. It’s definitely been me. But why is this a problem, and can we do anything about it anyway?

Email often distracts from the truly important

As Cal Newport argues in his excellent book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, the kind of work that moves our career forward requires deep concentration and focus.1 This kind of work—doing academic research, creating strategic initiatives, writing novels—is difficult, mentally taxing, and easy to avoid.

It’s hard enough to avoid distractions we know are distractions (like Twitter and Netflix), but email is far more insidious. Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, it pretends to be something it’s not—an innocuous aspect of modern work, and something that must be at the forefront of our minds at all times. In reality, email often serves as a welcome distraction when we don’t want to do something else.

This became clear for me when I turned off email notifications on my phone and closed the gmail tab on my laptop. I was amazed at how often I found myself trying to access my email without having made a conscious choice to do so (often while in the middle of a difficult work problem). Creepy.

Does it feel like there’s no alternative? Fortunately, there is. And to find it, let’s look at two very different forms of communication: one quite new, one very old.

Texting vs. snail mail

Text messages carry an expectation of a quick response. Your phone buzzes at you, interrupting you and demanding an answer. There’s no way for the sender to know if you’re in the middle of something important (and if you are, or were, tough beans). And once you respond, the expectation shifts to the other person, who feels compelled to respond herself. This continues until the conversation is over (however long that takes).

Postal mail is different. It arrives once a day, and it may sit in your mailbox for a few hours before you check it. Your mail carrier may drop off your mail at 10 AM, though you don’t see it until 5:30 PM. This does not bother you in the least, and it doesn’t distract from the rest of your life. You deal with snail mail on your own terms and in your own good time.

Email exists on a continuum between texting and postal mail, and it’s up to each of us to decide where. For some folks, email is no different from a text message: they respond instantly. Others take 24 hours or more to respond.

My suggestion: Treat email more like postal mail and less like a text message.

If you’re not sure this will fly in your workplace, try a gradual shift.

Adjusting your email habit

If you’re curious about moving from an “always-on,” “email=text message” philosophy toward a snail mail approach, a starting point might be silencing your phone and closing your email for an hour or two each workday. If you find this “radio silence” beneficial, you can then expand it. When I’m doing my best work, I’m checking my email twice a day: once in the morning and once in the late afternoon. The rest of the time, I’m meeting with students or working on a long-term project of some kind.

Won’t people get upset if we stop responding immediately? As the saying goes, we teach others how to treat us. We tend to give others a lot of leeway in how they run their lives, and if you’re clear, consistent, and still reachable, you’re unlikely to encounter significant difficulties.

On the contrary, you may find that you finally have enough the time (and the mental bandwidth) to get more real work done.

  1. This post is inspired by the email philosophy Cal Newport lays out in Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. For further email tips, consider picking it up. It’s had more of an impact on my life than nearly anything else I’ve read in the last two years. ↩︎