The best time of day to check email

I have a confession to make. I love checking email. I love how productive I feel smashing through hundreds of emails in a single hour. I feel efficient. I feel like I am getting things done.

But here is the thing – I used to be an email addict. I used to check email constantly throughout the day. It would happen when I was writing an article and I had reached a stuck point. It would happen when I was waiting in line for a coffee. It would happen when I would be out for dinner with my husband.

While you might scoff while reading this, I know I am not alone. Research published in Harvard Business Review revealed that 60 percent of workers spent less than two hours per day disconnected from email. And one in five people spent less than 30 minutes disconnected.

Now, email gets a bad rap. People complain that email is the biggest drain on their productivity. And certainly, it used to be a big drain on my productivity. But it’s only bad because of the mindless way most people approach their inbox. Instead of checking email willy-nilly throughout the day, we need to approach our inbox strategically. We need to utilise our inbox for its strengths, not its weaknesses.

The best thing about our inbox, which can equally be seen as the worst thing, is that once we enter it, the reward centre in our brain is lighting up like crazy. Because of the inbuilt addictive design of email-checking (the random presentation of good, or at least interesting, ‘bits’ of news), for most people it is energising and gives us a dopamine hit. We feel super productive responding, and then deleting or archiving, emails, and it generally doesn’t require much brain power. Which means email is the ideal activity for when your brain is at its least sharp (early-mid afternoon).

As a psychologist, understanding the psychology behind the addictive nature of email helped me overcome my addiction. I also deleted the email app from my phone which helped a lot too.

I now keep my email closed until lunchtime, or until I have completed my most important tasks for the day. But on an ideal day, I wait until around 2pm to check my inbox because its an effective way to re-energise myself from a post-lunch dip.

This is how to apply the 2pm email re-energiser:

  • Block out 30 minutes in your diary at 2pm. Call the calendar appointment “Meeting with Inbox”.
  • Set a timer for 30 minutes. If you skip this step, it’s too easy to get sucked into the email vortex, only to escape several hours later.
  • Try to avoid taking a sneaky look in your inbox for at least the previous two hours (although ideally, you have lasted the morning without any checks of your inbox). The more surprises that await you, the better.
  • Open up your email. Most likely, you have a lovely, full inbox.
  • Conquer the quick wins. Spend a couple of minutes deleting all subscriptions and emails you were cc-ed on but didn’t actually need to be cc-ed or bcc-ed on. You’ll trigger the reward centre of your brain through making a tonne of progress in a short space of time.
  • Next, start to reply to the emails where you can have the biggest impact.
  • When your timer goes off, close your inbox. Everything else can wait until later.
  • Repeat later in the afternoon if you need another pick-me-up.

Dr Amantha Imber is the Founder of Inventium, Australia’s leading innovation consultancy and the host of How I Workthe number one ranking business podcast about the habits and rituals of the world’s most successful innovators. 


Dr. Amantha Imber

Dr Amantha Imber is the Founder of Inventium, Australia’s leading innovation consultancy and the host of How I Work, the number one ranking business podcast about the habits and rituals of the world’s most successful innovators.

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