Transform Your Life by Managing Email

I had the privilege, recently, to interview Dr. Christine Carter—definitely one of the highlights of my professional career so far. Catch the interview replay here.


A major highlight during our conversation was how Dr. Carter checks her email. She only checks email four or five times per day—that is it. I have to admit, when she said that, inside I said to myself, “Yeah right, that’s impossible.”

In this 24×7 world, it seems like a tall order to not be plugged in on an ongoing basis.

Later, though, I started to notice that a handful of people I truly admire, when I communicate with them, don’t necessarily respond right away. In fact, I started to notice that, in a couple specific circumstances, people I consider thought leaders and the most productive in my extended circle have some similar email patterns.

I noticed, for example, a couple people replied to me within a specific hour-long period of the day (in both cases, it was between 4 and 5:30pm PT). That got me thinking.

What would happen if I did the same? What would be possible for my level of focus?

Dr. Carter had four or five times per day she checks email. Roughly, she said it goes something like this:

  1. Shortly after waking up, checking on phone only to see if any emergencies;
  2. At 11am, a quick scan through;
  3. At 3pm a thorough clean-out, checking and responding to all important messages; and
  4. After dinner, checks personal email only, to coordinate kid logistics for school, etc.

Yes, it’s work to make a new habit, and she said that we are genetically programmed to want to check email, to get the juice that comes with it energetically. And, we need to make it as easy as possible for ourselves to succeed in focusing our attention away from email in order to reap the benefits of this strategy.

Dr. Carter talked about “hiding the Halloween candy.” And by that she means that she recognizes the temptation to check email on her phone when it is handy so she makes sure that her phone is out of site when it is not email-checking time. She also said that it is important for the brain to know, when you are implementing a new habit to not check email all the time, that you will check it at a certain time, so that the brain can relax about it.

Over the past few days I have been experimenting with this technique and have noticed a few things about myself and what is possible for me:

  • It is much more satisfying to check a solid group of email messages and reply one after another than to do it piecemeal throughout the day. I am less exhausted when I don’t change what I focus on attention-wise by getting side-tracked into email issues all day long.
  • If I don’t check my email before I go to bed, I sleep more soundly – and generally longer.
  • If I do check my email before I go to bed but don’t respond to the emails I see, I have an easier time turning off at night and getting good rest than when I do engage with the emails and start responding to them.
  • I am able to focus much better in the morning than in the evening, and a message that takes me 10 min to write in the evening takes about half that time in the morning.
  • Sometimes when I don’t respond immediately to an email that outlines an issue, the issue gets resolved without my involvement at all. Less work for me!

All these observations came to me through simple experimentation and noticing, without really trying to shift my email behavior. Imagine what would be possible if I made a more concerted effort! Wow.

So, if your email is overwhelming you, and you are hooked on checking it all the time, feeling the need to keep plugged in all day long, I encourage you to consider listening to my interview with Dr. Carter for some additional neuroscience behind how to train yourself to change patterns of behavior that seem intractable. And then experiment like I’m doing.

And let me know how it goes—I’d love to hear how it’s working (or not) for you.

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