Email nowadays powers the communication in almost any business.
Whether you’re a factory worker or blue collar worker, chances are you have to use email a couple of times per week.
Now in productivity circles there is a saying “Never check email in the morning and never check email before going to sleep”. I’ve never understood why until I tested it out on myself.
As you know, you should always run life experiments and optimize both your productivity and your health by testing out certain hypotheses. So email was my experiment for a couple of weeks, just to see the actual effects.
Why is it problematic?
If you think about it there shouldn’t be any difference between checking email at 6am and 10am, as well as at 4pm and at 10pm, but there is.
Generally when you receive email, two things happen: Either you reply instantly or keep it on the back of your head, thinking about it throughout the day (or night), whether that’s consciously or unconsciously.
If you remember, we talked about a breakfast routine here and why it’s important to limit certain decisions early in the morning.
There is something that I call “decision energy pool”, which everytime something uses space in your mind, be it active or inactive, uses part of that pool and thus robbing you of the energy that’s required to make proper decisions when it matters (both in life and business).
Email is no different. Unless you’re working through your email, by using something like inbox zero or GTD you’re just checking it for the dopamine response.
Dopamine is an organic chemical that your brain produces in order for you to seek out certain exciting experiences such as learning and being curious (science earlier thought that it was produced AFTER you had good and exciting experiences).
It is the reason why you feel a little rush when seeing the notifications bar on your facebook page or when you feel excited when you get a text message (even if it’s just an invitation to an event or a game). That little red dot is making your brain jump left and right out of excitement.
Email is no different in that regard. Every time you receive and email, dopamine gets produced (or actually the dopamine causes you check email and feel excited) and you’re excited, even if it’s just spam from your royal Nigerian cousin.
Let’s have a look at the effects that would have when you check email in the morning and at night before going to sleep.
In the morning
The morning, for some, is one of the most creative times of the day. You get up, maybe a little groggy, but ready to tackle the day, do your morning routine and get mentally ready for the tasks that are thrown at you that day.
Now when you get up and make checking email part of your routine, all of this creativity tends to get lost and you don’t have your focus in place. Why?
Checking email is like working on someone else’s schedule.
Think about it: If I send you an email, chances are I want something from you, in the most simple form, I want an answer, even when I’m just asking how you are doing. It isn’t inherently bad of course, but it breaks your flow of the day.
“But Fey, I just check the email, I don’t answer it right away!” some of you might say. And that sounds good on paper, but doesn’t really work when it comes to your brain.
If you remember, we talked about the decision energy pool and that email that you received (but haven’t replied back) is using some of that energy. Multiply that by a bunch of emails coming in throughout the day and you see the potential mess.
When it comes to structuring your day, always think about yourself first. This is the time where you can advance or at least lay the foundation of advancing in any area that you’re interested in.
Famous marketer and entrepreneur Noah Kagan has a system called GEBY – Gratitude, Exercise, Breakfast, You.
Before doing anything else he goes through these for things and takes care of the most important things before checking email or doing meetings. The You part is flexible and could be learning a new skill, reading or meditation.
So make sure that your mornings are about you, and not other people’s schedules.
What about at night?
I’m a big fan of evening routines, because I believe it lays the foundation of a successful next day.
Now with you constantly checking email at night or in the evening, chances are you won’t be able to relax in any way.
While it still uses some of your decision energy pool, that isn’t much of a problem since it’s towards the end of the day, but there is something more important in my eyes, that needs to be talked about: Blue light.
See, any screen at your home, be it a TV, a computer or a mobile phone emits something called blue light. It makes your screen bright and readable.
Throughout the day, that’s cool. You want focus and attention that your brain creates in order for you to concentrate on the things that are happening on the screen.
However in the evening, that can get too much.
In the sleep article I mentioned the different stages of sleep. Now, if you look at digital screens of any type (TV, mobile phone, tablets, etc) your stages of sleep get delayed.
When you go to sleep your body produces something called melatonin. Melatonin makes you sleepy and dreamy (not actual words) so you want your body to produce it as early as possible. Or rather, right at the time when you’re going to sleep.
The problem with blue screen is, you guessed it, they mess with your melatonin production. So every time (in the evening) you look at a screen, you postpone your sleepy time by x minutes (varies a lot from person to person). That can be the cause of bad sleep or restless sleep.
The best solution here is to remove all blue screen emitting devices in the evening. Ban them completely from your evening routine. The second best solution is to use certain software that helps you with adjusting your screen colors.
Flux is such a tool, or Nightshift on iOS. I think Flux works on both Mac and Android, but not the iPhone and iPad.
These tools adjust the screen colors so that they feel warmer. You’ll realize it instantly when you see it, as it makes your screen more orange-y vs. white and strong.
But back to the results.
The results of avoiding email as much as possible
Now usually my evening routine always consisted of some time on the mobile phone. Be it to check email or look at social media (another dopamine cause, but that’s a different story!). I found that whenever I used a mobile phone, or my laptop before going to sleep, I slept less deep (tracked with a sleep tracker) and more restless (randomly woke up, couldn’t fall asleep etc).
Of course it didn’t happen every night, but what happened every morning was that I didn’t feel fested although I sleep between 7 and 9 hours, or 8 on average.
That’s specifically interesting because I normally don’t sleep a lot and tend to get up very quickly in the morning.
But what about the morning?
Now in the morning, instead of doing my usual productivity ritual and starting to work, I started to check email. From there I browsed a few news sites and twitter. And here goes my most productive time of the day.
That is what really got me started with the routine of not checking email all the time, and especially not first thing in the morning and just before I go to sleep.
I try to do my MIT (Most Important Tasks) before taking any kind of break or checking email.
The idea of draining the decision energy pool isn’t specific as you’d think or imagine it to be in a game, where you have certain percentages. It’s more like that your motivation and productivity just takes a toll without you realizing. And when you do realize, it’s too late because it has become a habit and now you have to break it again.
To repeat: Checking email means working on another person’s schedule and not advancing with your own goals. Email is VERY RARELY so important that it requires an answer right away. So don’t use it as an excuse to stay glued to your phone all night and all morning.
Specify times (2-3x per day) where you check and work on your email and close the mailbox afterwards. 10am, 2pm and 5pm work great for example.
If you need something to do in the evening before going to sleep, read fiction books or write down everything that’s in your head. Fiction books help you relax and shut off the brain and the writing part just empties your brain like anything you’ve ever seen. Give it a try!