How Many Times a Day Should You Check Email?

I talk about this in my post on how to get your email inbox to zero every day, but it is worth discussing again from time to time.

When it comes to checking your email, the main rule is: Do not check email continually. Most of us have lots of work to do other than email. If you are checking email continually, you are dividing your focus. As a result, your other work is going to take a lot longer. Plus, you will probably find yourself less satisfied with your day.

Therefore, I recommend checking your email at set times throughout the day. Your frequency on this will depend upon the nature of your job. It might need to be every hour, or even every half hour. Or it might be once in the morning, once before lunch, and once before going home. I usually recommend once per hour.

Each time that you check email, process it all the way to zero. Do not leave something in your inbox because you “don’t know what to do with it.” If you don’t process your email to zero each time you check it, the unprocessed emails will start to feel like loose ends that nag you throughout the day.

If an email contains a long action item, processing to zero doesn’t mean that you need to do that action right away. It means that you either need to park that email in a working folder (“answer,” “read,” or “hold”) for attention later on, or park the action on a list somewhere and the email itself in a support file (if you will  need to refer to it). I give more details on how to process your email in my post on getting your email inbox to zero every day.

When you are done checking email, turn your attention back to your other work and focus on that. Make sure the bell that notifies you of new email is turned off. You won’t miss anything — when it’s time to check email again, turn your attention back to your email program and process all the new mail down to zero again. If you fear you won’t see an important email soon enough, then just increase the number of times you check email per day. But do not default back to the continual-checking-mode. Whatever you do, do not check your email continually.

  • Demian Farnworth

    Great reminder. I try to check my email once. Tim Ferris turned me onto this. And I’ve also learned I’ve had to train people to call me if they have something urgent. Work related emails end up in my box and I may not see them for 24 hours.

  • paul merrill

    I agree – at some levels. But since I work remotely, all my colleagues are not here. SO my timely responses to emails are like turning around to respond when someone walks into my office.

  • Chris

    I finally emptied out my inbox, sent items, and deleted items–many months worth!

    So far I am four days into keeping my e-mail at zero and it’s going very well.

    Now I am looking forward to moving the computer out of the kitchen and into the downstairs family room where it will not be so tempting to work on it so often.

    What do you think about people who work at home (whether for a volunteer position or a paid position) keeping office hours and being firm about only working during those hours?

    I know most people worry that if they work at home they’d be too distracted by home responsibilities to get any work done. I have the opposite problem. There is always one more thing to do for an upcoming project or event, and I get really, REALLY behind in my housework–very frustrating to the rest of the family!

    Maybe you have a previous post on this to recommend.

  • Demian Farnworth

    Paul: Wow, can’t imagine how that is the least bit productive. That’s why I shut my door, and turn off my email. Does your job require you to be so responsive? Curious.

  • Matt

    Chris: Glad your email is to zero! I think setting something like office hours for those who work at home can be a good strategy. I agree that the biggest temptation in working at home is not being distracted by home stuff, but letting work spill over more than it should.

    I think it’s good to be able to pick up with work at whatever time of day may seem useful, but the key is to preserve focused family time. Something like “office hours” would be one way to do this.

    I wish I had something written on this. The main thing that I’ve written that would pertain to this are my posts on multitasking. The heart of the issue is to preserve focused time for family (and household responsibilities) rather than always trying to do both at once.

  • Matt

    Chris: I just came across this article on tips for keeping work from always spilling over when you work from home:

  • Chris

    Thank you for the advice and the article. I saved it and will try to do those things.

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  • Ayen

    Thanks for your great advice. I will do that. :-)

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