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Check email first thing in the morning or not

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Posted by Chris Murtland
Nov 16, 2011 at 04:42 PM


In continuation of the discussion at and in response to JB’s article at


Here is what I have observed both working mostly exactly as you describe and then occasionally NOT working that way:

Most of the time I jump right into email. But email is not fun to me, mainly because every hour of email coming in tends to generate several more hours of work for me. It’s sort of a good problem to have (better than having no work), but checking email puts me instantly into reactive mode. I’ve got to juggle all of those demands. What usually happens is that reacting to those demands derails the more time-consuming tasks - I just never get around to them that day, even if they are the most important ones. Plus the bombardment of demands causes stress, and it just doesn’t get my blood flowing, it spikes my blood pressure.

Now the flip side…

I will wake up really early (for me) sometimes, like 6:30 or 7 am. I will check email as usual, but since most people aren’t at work yet, there is usually no substantive email coming in yet. I’ve noticed on these days that I will get more important tasks done that require an hour or two of focus each. By 9 or 10 am, I already feel like I have done way more than I usually get done in a full day that starts out in reactive mode. I feel calm and relaxed and purposeful instead of stressed and resentful. And then I’m ready to more effectively deal with the inevitable flood of mail.

So I came into it a bit by accident - I didn’t set out to not check email first thing. Now I’m simply trying to replicate a productive state by not checking mail at first even if I roll in at 10am - or any time I need an hour or two of focused effort.

I do agree that email is on the whole much better than chat, phone calls, or meetings. But I already don’t use chat at all, I make maybe 2-3 work phone calls during a busy week, and have a meeting about once every three months, so email already accounts for 95% of my communication. (I have noticed, however, that phone calls are actually more efficient for certain types of communication.)

I totally agree with the need to take micro-breaks and longer breaks to give the subconscious/right brain/whatever time to work. I’ve learned that when I hit a wall, it’s best to do something else rather than try to slog through it; the solution usually becomes apparent when doing something totally unrelated. But email just isn’t a break or a entertaining distraction for me.


Posted by MadaboutDana
Nov 16, 2011 at 05:29 PM


Yes, I have to agree that e-mail forces one into a reactive state of mind. On the other hand, it also usually triggers some kind of action. I find that e-mail without a task list is a nightmare. If I have a task list open (and nowadays I try and make sure it’s the first thing I open), I force myself to use the latter as a focal point, prioritising/deprioritising tasks based not purely on e-mail, but on my deadlines etc.

I have to admit that I’ve yet to find the perfect task list manager! We use Wunderlist at work, because it’s free, cross-platform, and has a good web client (actually, despite the cross-platform clients available, most of us use the web client, which is fast and efficient). But it’s not the perfect task manager, by any means, although unlike some of the ridiculously complex systems out there, it is nice and simple (which I personally regard as the Holy Grail of task management). As you will, by now, have gathered, for me a task list manager has to be shareable/multi-user - I have to laugh every time I see yet another complicated to-do app targeting individuals: there are thousands of them out there already, many of them very good, but very few of them are multi-user.

On my own machine, therefore, I also run a separate task manager in TreeSheets. Ridiculous, I know, but the latter has the advantage of huge simplicity coupled with huge power. I was using The Guide (for which I have an inordinate fondness; the ultimately simple outliner). Both apps have the advantage that I can easily export the contents and save them to more or less anything at all (iPad, intranet/extranet, whatever). But not really a solution.

I have high hopes of Wunderkit (the next Big Thing from the dynamic team at; there have been some titillating teasers. Ideally, of course, the whole e-mail thing would be seamlessly combined with one’s task list, but then - as you’ve rightly remarked - there’s a real tendency for e-mail to take over as the central pivot of the whole affair (as it does in Outlook, for example). So probably best to keep the two things separate.



Posted by JBfrom
Nov 16, 2011 at 05:35 PM


Something I perhaps should’ve made explicit is that I do NOT recommend checking email often if you are not using Cyborganize.

It sounds to me like you go into reactive mode when checking email because you do not have an efficient task deferral mechanism. Either that or your task prioritization method is broken. Or you are unable to compartmentalize the stress radiating from your inbox, and that forces you to deal with those items first.

Of the three, only the last one can’t be addressed by a productivity system, as it’s more of an emotion management / meditation issue.


Posted by Ken
Nov 16, 2011 at 06:07 PM


My experiences with e-mail and productivity are somewhat similar to Chris’.  The primary difference is that I work in a cubicle in a large office, and in addition e-mail, my phone is is another primary means of communication and is constantly ringing (although having caller identificaton helps).  The challenge that I see most days in the office is balancing large projects that are a high priority on YOUR to do list with meeting the, sometimes unreasonable, customer service expectations of clients and senoir management which is high on THEIR list of expectations.  So, much of my normal day can be spent in a reactive crisis management mode.  Thankfully, I have found the end of the day to be a time when I can focus on what is important to me.  Its a shame that working after hours is not an easy option for me, as I do find productivity when not being interrupted.  Voicemail, email and the web in general have certainly changed our comminication expectations over the last 20 years.  I feel as if I were a distance runner who has been slowly trained to sprint over the years, and now I have lost the structure and habits to run a long distance race.  Its a struggle, but I keep at it hoping that the old habits are not lost, because while I am good in reatctive mode, I also enjoy working on larger, more comlplicated projects that require research and deep thought.



Posted by Chris Murtland
Nov 16, 2011 at 06:18 PM


I do have a way of managing and deferring tasks (although this part of my workflow never feels sufficient or satisfying), but the problem is really on a few different levels at the point of deferral. For one, the majority of things I receive cannot be deferred indefinitely - they have to be addressed at some point (and most of the time addressing it requires more than a reply), usually sooner rather than later. Secondly, people often want to know when that will be. Third, many messages represent not just one task but a chain of related or unrelated tasks (hence the need for a task list that splits out the tasks from individual messages). And finally, the priority of all of these items is constantly fluctuating, both to myself and others.

There has to be a middle ground between simply starring or flagging messages for deferral (having 200 starred messages doesn’t seem like much of an improvement on having 205 unread messages) and having some overly complex system where the properties of each individual task have to be managed constantly. Even entering all the tasks represented in mail into a separate system often feels onerous, but having the message as the smallest unit seems to also fail. Also, task prioritization on almost any level seems to fail. An intuitive judgment in the moment based on elements higher than the task level seems to work much better (and with no need to track it or manage it in any way).

There are also some related scheduling and capacity factors that I have never been able to figure out how to manage easily.

I do have some strategies for dealing with it, but they are mostly mental strategies rather than software-specific, and I’ve found I have to use different strategies at different times based on other elements. In any case, if I am able to deal with email faster and more effectively by deferring the whole process for a couple of hours while I get some focused work done, isn’t that the essence of productivity? I get the benefit of completing some longer-form tasks and I deal with the email better having done so. That may not work for everyone, but finding the patterns and rituals that have some payoff to yourself seems more valuable than trying to force an external workflow. In other words, you have to personally experiment to find what actually works in the real world for you.


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