As attorneys living in a busy, non-stop, hustle and bustle world, it’s easy to get stuck in a routine of constantly checking your work email. I remember when I would refresh my email browser every 20-30 seconds anxiously awaiting the next client email or assignment. I was obsessed with receiving, checking, then responding to my work emails. Somehow, I told myself the quicker I responded, the better of an employee I was and the more valuable I was. Actually, the opposite was true. I was stressed and worried, which is not the exact recipe for a happy, successful attorney.
I get it. Once you’re in the incessant rut of constantly checking emails, it’s tough to get off the hamster wheel. But, after a few attempts to “jump” off the wheel, it can happen. Like most anything else, it takes a little time and a little practice.
Here are 4 steps on how to achieve freedom from constantly checking your work email:
1) Acknowledge there is a “problem”.
As with most things, the first step is to acknowledge that there is even a problem between you and your work email. Ask yourself: Do I check my email too often? What emotions come up when I check emails? Do I check emails when I am out with friends and family, at dinner, at an occasion? [No joke, I am pretty sure my husband, who is also an attorney, was checking emails during our wedding.] When you check emails, is there a “need” to respond immediately, or soon thereafter? If you’re unsure if you have a “problem”, ask someone you spend considerable time with (significant other, friend, family member, roommate, etc.), if they haven’t made this complaint to you already. They usually are aware of when they lose your attention to your smart phone.
2) Notice when it happens.
Once you are aware you check emails too often, or have the urge to respond immediately, notice it. See what that feels like. Usually there is some type of emotion involved (such as feeling anxious, worried, stressed, and/or overwhelmed). Once you recognize the emotion, your mind will become better and better at catching it in the future.
3) Create boundaries with your Email.
You realize you have a problem, you notice it, but now what? Here is where the real work comes in. You have to create boundaries (if only I had a dollar for every time I heard that phrase). But really, create boundaries with your computer/phone around how often you will check emails, and how much time is “safe” to let pass before responding to an email. I get this can differ, depending on the circumstances, but think in general terms when setting boundaries. Limit the frequency you check emails after you leave the office for the day, on the weekends, when having dinner or spending time with people who you actually enjoy being around, and give yourself a few moments between the time when you wake up and when you first check your email. There are a lot of ways you can create boundaries, but these are some ways you can start.
4) After you set your boundaries, ask yourself: Will the world end if I operate within these boundaries?
I get it. Some things really are urgent and do require your immediate attention and response. For those situations, ignore everyone I have said so far. But, chances are, those circumstances are far and few between. Under normal, non-urgent circumstances, ask yourself the ultimate question of questions: will the world end if ____(fill in the blank)___ (I don’t respond to this email ASAP/I don’t check my email every 5 minutes/I enjoy this meal without looking at my phone for an hour). Hopefully the answer will be no, and if so, then stick to your boundaries. Finish the one task you are working on, finish a conversation, finish dinner, finish reading your kid a book. Once you are done, then you can check, or respond to, your email.
I am fully aware that everything I have said above requires some effort on your part. With so many tasks already burdening us these days, you might wonder why you should add one more thing to your “to-do” list. The answer is simple, in my opinion at least. If you can master this one, rather small, aspect of your life, other parts of your life will start to improve. Checking email less often may reduce stress. Reducing stress is good, says everyone. Less stress = happier you = a better life. It’s simple. Checking emails less often will help you focus on one thing at a time. I used to be the queen of multi-tasking. I thought it was so good for me, but really, I was just burned out and stressed. By controlling your email-checking habits, you cut down the need to switch between tasks. Chances are, you’re checking emails when you are doing something else. An unfortunate limitation of the human mind is that it cannot perform two demanding tasks simultaneously. Flipping back and forth between different tasks drains your cognitive resources. The things you focus on will be of better quality, and you will feel better knowing you are a quality person. Checking email less often will create better, happier relationships. It’s rude to have your face in your phone when someone is sitting across from you. People notice and pay attention to your interactions with them. Pay attention to how it makes you feel when you’re engaged with someone and all of a sudden they pull out their phone to check emails, just because. People really will appreciate when you are present with them. You will also feel more fulfilled when you learn to be present, instead of having your head in the e-mail cloud.
Do you fit the description of someone who is too obsessed with their email? If so, apply these steps. I would love to hear if you were able to set boundaries, and stick to them. What worked for you, and what didn’t?