Seriously, You Need to Stop Checking Email in the Morning

Updated to Habits, Productivity on December 27, 2022.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

At the risk of repeating what I think is becoming increasingly obvious, we have all become idiots. Or at the very least, victims of the urgent.

Let me explain. And, by the way, if you do what I am going to recommend in this post you could free up at least one hour of time a day. You’re welcome.

The latest research found we are now burning up one-third of our day (about half as much if you work from home) on…you guessed it…email.

Just to be clear. If you work in an office, that’s 11.7 hours a week, or 14.6 weeks a year on email. And here’s the kicker, 30% of the time the emails were neither urgent or important.

Before I get to the 4 very simple solutions, let’s look at why we do anything repetitively.

Our reward system has changed

This is not so much about habits – although any habit you inject into your morass of neuropathways will influence behaviour. New habits don’t have to be complicated: with the right cue-routine-reward formula you can add a daily diet of morning exercise, email-free boundaries or reading before bed.

That circuitry is hard coded and ready to accept almost any new habit.

What I’m talking about is Dopamine. The lovely neurotransmitter that makes us want write a Thank You card, donate to a charity, buy a $5 lottery draw (even though the odds of winning are 1 in 14 million) and check your email in the morning.

You do it because it feels good.

“The brain’s reward system has adapted,” says psychologist Kelly McGonigal, “and is now just as interested in news and social relations as it is in dinner.”

The problem with your Pavlovian response to your inbox is that your Boulders aren’t moving forward and you could be wasting the most precious time of your day – the time when all the stars of willpower, daylight, energy and focus align.

Your Precious Mornings

Any result I value in my work was created by not checking email but by sticking to my morning plan.

I have used my morning hours to write a book, negotiate 6-figure contracts, resolve staff conflict and to crank off hundreds of hours of exercise and training. In fact, I would argue that any result I value in my work was created by not checking email but by sticking to my morning plan.

Don’t get me wrong: if your job is to check email (and, trust me, many people in my audiences have painstakingly explained this to me), I get it—that’s what you need to do.

I’m talking about discretionary time—the time when you could be following up with a prospect, finishing a report, coaching someone on staff, or moving a launch campaign forward. That time.

Make a choice

If you have major Boulders you need to complete them. Boulders that will move a project forward, move you forward financially or are important to your health or spiritual wellbeing then you need to make a choice: be driven by a dumb neurotransmitter, or make a decision about what you know is right.

Alrighty then, now that I’ve got you squirming in your seat, let’s move onto the solution, in fact, four of them:

1 – Goals before Bed

I scribble a quick note of what writing project I’ll work on before 7AM – that’s my creative writing time.

This is a game-changer: take 5 minutes to jot down what you want to/need to get accomplished in the morning before ________AM. In my case, I scribble a quick note of what writing project I’ll work on before 7AM – that’s my creative writing time.

For you it could be exercise, a project to move forward or client work before 10:30AM at work. The point is to sit down with your favourite hot brew and get straight to work. Before you know it, you’re getting results and wondering why you don’t do this every day (I was wondering the same thing.)

2 – Love your Routine.

A quick glance to check a fact, or an alert on your phone and now you’re scrolling through everyone else’s priorities, not yours.

Like the classic Liam Neeson line in Taken (the only one of the trilogy worth watching) “You’ll be taken” – you will be dearly tempted to be taken away by email. A quick glance to check a fact, or an alert on your phone and now you’re scrolling through everyone else’s priorities, not yours.

You need to love your routine – respect it and savour getting results above all distractions. Your morning routine could be the reason you get to enjoy more freedom in the rest of the day (like a afternoon coffee with a colleague, guilt-free.)

3 – Stick to Boundaries.

Routines are not boring, they give us freedom for the rest of the day.

This is a bit tactical – if you are going to work undistracted until 10:30AM then you need to keep your promise. My mind keeps track of this and when I break a promise by quitting early or going overtime, it means my commitment isn’t real and my boundaries aren’t worth respecting.

This is why every morning at 7AM I stand up – even in mid-sentence – to collect my dog, Riley (sitting by the door at precisely 7AM) and head out for our morning walk. Routines are not boring, they give us freedom for the rest of the day.

4 – Reward the Results.

Staying off email and executing on your morning routine is worth rewarding.

The new science of habit building shows when we reward a routine we are more likely to repeat the routine.

Packed a salad for lunch? Take a moment to notice you overcame resistance and kept a promise. Same for making sales calls before 10AM, going to bed when you planned, a brisk walk at lunch and taking 5 minutes to clean up your desk before closing up for the day. The reward doesn’t have to be a $5 latte, but staying off email and executing on your morning routine is worth rewarding.

For me, the reward is a word count for whatever I’m working on. For you it could be tasks crossed off your list. Rewarding your tenacity is as important as making the commitment in the first place.

Email is not going away any day soon. And with just a little intention and dose of willpower we can use it as it was designed – as a communication tool – on our terms.

Interested in learning more about habits and email? Check out these related articles:

15 ways to spend less time on email
The bizarre truth about willpower and keeping promises
How drinking tea can make you rich (and build willpower)