HUGH CULVER

Seriously, You Need to Stop Checking Email in the Morning

Updated to Habits, Productivity on December 27, 2022.

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)