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Wean Yourself from Compulsive Email Checking with Positive Reward

Photo by Esparta

Do you check your email more often than you need to? Do you experience withdrawal symptoms when if you haven’t checked your email in a while? Compulsive email checking is an unhealthy habit that keeps you from doing more important things. Use positive reward to establish a healthier relationship to your inbox.

Email is not always productive

There are three major reasons why email is not always productive.

1. Email takes time away from other things: It may be easy to justify compulsive email checking because it feels like you are getting something done. After all, reading through messages, replying to some, and emptying out your inbox should be a good thing. But it’s only productive when it’s done intentionally — not during time that’s reversed for other, more important tasks.

2. Email can be no different from chit-chat: Using email to communicate with friends, colleagues, or acquaintances can be no different from chit-chat at the lunchroom. If the conversation is not that important and extends beyond what’s a reasonable break time, it distracts you from your work.

3. Email is usually about other people: Email encourages you to cater to other people’s needs, requests, and questions — instead of your own. Email does have a time and place in your day, but it needs to have a designated time and place. Not just any time you feel like checking.

Diagnose Your Problem

People do compulsive things for all sorts of reasons. The most common reason is to avoid experiencing something particularly unpleasant. If you’re checking email ten times a day without good reason, you’re probably trying to avoid someone or some thing.

Compulsive email checking could be your way of evading:

  • A looming deadline
  • Writer’s block
  • Uncertainty about what to do next
  • Boredom
  • Fixing an important problem that’s preventing you from doing work
  • Preparing for a planned engagement
  • Actually working on something

Explore the potential reasons you check your email more often than needed to diagnose your problem.

Acknowledge Your Compulsive Habit

The next step in changing your compulsive email habit is tracking it. Keep a tally of how many times you open your inbox. Notice how much time you spend on average during each visit.

Keep a positive attitude in the process. Don’t judge yourself as unproductive, unfocused, or a failure when you identify weaknesses or mistakes. Self-punishment won’t help you make positive changes. Simply recognize your patterns and explore what the motivations may be, as covered above.

Continue acknowledging your compulsive email habit until you no longer can stand it — until you no longer can standing doing nothing about it. Because the only way to address the compulsive behavior is by:

    1. Accepting that it exists
    2. Being self-honest enough to understand why
    3. Having compelling enough reason(s) to do something about it

Once you’re truly motivated to make a change, it’s relatively easy to start with baby steps.

Start with Baby Steps and Positive Reward

Photo by Ruthieki

Positive reward helps you associate your desired behavior with good feelings and/or positive feedback. Follow the seven steps below to make visiting your email inbox a healthier, more productive practice.

Step 1: Create an email accountability document

Create a document that you will refer to for your email accountability. Make sure it’s visual and dynamic enough to work with. You’ll be adding content to this document in the following steps, but customize it based on your preferences.

Step 2: State your desired behavior change (or end goal)

On the top of the document, write out how (often) you ultimately want to check your email.

This could be as general as “I don’t want to check my email as often,” or as specific as “I only want to check my email at 10am and 3pm each weekday and at 4pm during weekends.”

Be extra specific on your end goal and if possible provide your reasons for selecting it.

Step 3: Admit your weaknesses

Below your statement, list out the reasons why you haven’t already reached that desired goal in their respective rows.

Again, be specific, and don’t use unnecessarily harsh language, such as, “I’m bad at time management,” or “I just can’t control myself.”

Use objective language that keeps you focused on what’s happening and why. More functional statements are:

  • “I struggle managing my time when I have important projects that I don’t feel ready to finish.”
  • “I have difficulty resisting the urge to check my email, even when I know I don’t need to, because I’d rather not have a few moments of silence to think about what I should really be doing.”

Try to list out at least five of your weaknesses.

Let’s say that your goal is to check your inbox once in the morning and once in the late afternoon. Currently, you check it about once every twenty minutes while on the computer.

Here are five potential weaknesses that get in your way:

  • You’re not excited about doing your other computer-related tasks.
  • You get bored while commuting and waiting around in public, don’t want to interact with the people around you, and find that checking mail on your iPhone passes the time.
  • You worry about hanging email questions or conversations and want to know what the next move is — as soon as Mr. Smith gets back to you.
  • You want to please Mr. Smith by always responding to him promptly, even though he doesn’t write out your paycheck and isn’t particularly close to you.
  • You’re hoping to receive an email alert that someone will spark a conversation with you on your Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn as validation that you’re important enough to talk to.

It may not be fun exploring your weaknesses when it comes to checking email, but it will helpful reprogram your habits for the better.

Step 4: Identify your challenges based on your weaknesses

Now go through each weakness on your list and add an extra column to the right. Identify the situations (real or imagined) during which you demonstrate those weaknesses.

Let’s say you have “I struggle managing my time when I have important projects that I don’t feel ready to finish” in the left column.

Then in the right column, describe the situation that’s problematic. It would be something like, “Having an important project to work on,” or “Having an important project to work on that I don’t feel ready to finish,” or even “Feeling uncertain about an important project.”

Once you’re aware of the challenging situations, you’ll be better prepared to face them.

Step 5: Devise a positive reward checklist

When you set up your columns describing your weaknesses and how they arise, add a third column to the right.

Use this column to list action steps you can take to overcome the problematic situations that trigger the weaknesses that keep you from checking your email on your terms, at your desired frequency.

Then add a fourth column, where you will have the space to check off instances when you accomplish one of the actions from the third column.

Here’s one way you could format your document:

You’ll notice there’s only one check box for each action step. Throughout your day, you might complete that step several times, so add extra check box columns as necessary.

Step 6: Reward yourself for staying on task

Once you have your document set up, print out a copy or keep it open on your desktop. From now on, you’ll refer to this document to retrain how you visit your inbox.

Each time you check off a box in the far right column, you can check your email — do so knowing that you earned it. The positive feelings associated with checking your email after you accomplish something meaningful will inspire you to look at your inbox in different ways.

Here’s an example. Let’s draw again from the weakness: “I struggle managing my time when I have important projects that I don’t feel ready to finish.” Let’s say one of the challenges associated with that weakness is: “Having an important project to work on.” Now, here are three potential action steps that help you overcome and/or work toward your goal:

    1. Printing out an article/resource/document that reminds you why your project is so important and/or why you’re capable of successfully completing it.
    2. Asking a friend or colleague for help or perspective when you feel stuck.
    3. Writing out a schedule or to-do list for your project.
    4. Reviewing and/or revising your schedule or to-do list for your project.
    5. Completing an item on your schedule or to-do list for your project.

Each time you complete one of these steps, check off a box and know that you can check your email having earned it. Of course, if you don’t feel the urge to check your email, you can get straight to the next task. As you can see, each of these steps started out as a way to avoid checking your email compulsively, and end up serving your productivity goals.

You don’t have to be perfect; it’s okay if you check your inbox without having checked off a box first. But at least be mindful of what you do. And pay attention to how different it feels to check your inbox having earned it, versus having had no real reason to do so (except for maybe succumbing to a problematic situation which triggers the compulsive habit).

Step 7: Keep using the checklist until you notice the changes

When you use your checklist enough to feel confident you have your email situation under control, you’ll notice that you’re better at:

  • Spotting boredom
  • Identifying problems with work that may be difficult to admit to
  • Noticing when you’re overloaded
  • Acknowledging negative feelings about your work, which you need to express and address
  • Becoming aware of creative or mental blocks
  • Giving yourself and your eyes a computer break when needed
  • Staying on task and feeling good about getting things done

Each of these helps you resolve the issues that when unaddressed, lead to various compulsive behaviors.

Make Checking Email Special

When email has become your compulsive habit, it’s no longer a productive tool. Make checking email special so that it becomes productive again.

In addition to the checklist exercise above, you can explore other techniques for using positive reward. You can block out regular times for inbox cleaning after you’ve put in solid hours of work, and set up that time to be enjoyable, with a snack nearby and some feel-good music in the background. You can also apply the same principles for work — unplug from internet and/or hide your mail client and use a comfortable work environment to compensate.

Reward yourself for good work habits, and email won’t have to take over your work life.

Melissa Karnaze is an experimental psychology masters student. She's interested in how we can use technology with greater mindfulness, writes about emotional productivity at Mindful Construct, and loves how the web is changing the world.

  • Published 10/4/10

Comments (6)

  1. Gil

    I have to wonder how much time I spent reading/reacting to this email?

  2. shaun

    i love how immediately after this article there’s a box to sign up for the daily email list :P

  3. CJ

    Hey funny thing about this is that i always am on Twitter hitting F5 all day and on Facebook updating my YouTube Channel Fan (So called “Like”) page and all! This is a good way!

  4. trm96

    Wow I’m glad this is not me… Now if you’ll excuse me I HAVE to check my email!

  5. Cencen

    Boredom & checking my favorite sites updated is 2 main factors.
    Fortunately, rss feeds from rss client is much easier than email updates.

  6. Mathew

    Well i must be a compulsive email checker :O

    I myself check my email several times per day probably about 20 times per day. I am a web developer and run a website so obviously i check more often than some other people but i can’t resist not checking it. I have 15 email accounts to check.

    Like Shaun said above -:

    “i love how immediately after this article there‚Äôs a box to sign up for the daily email list ”

    lol …

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