I remember as a child how excited I would be when the mailman placed a stack of mail into our mailbox. There was the anticipation that someone had mailed something to me! At birthdays or holidays the likelihood of a glued sealed hallmark was much greater and the chance of monetary reward pretty certain. Do you have similar memories? Do you still find yourself excitedly waiting for the mail to be delivered (despite the higher likelihood that it contains more requests for money then delivery?) Can you say “Pavlov”?

Postal delivery is once a day 5-6 days a week. The mail comes, it is sorted and we move on with our day. Where we start to have a problem is that we have unknowingly transfered these feelings to email and exponentially increased the times we experience this anticipation throughout the day.

Email comes at us all, day every day. A popup here, a beep there, a vibration in the pocket (from the Blackberry.) My own experience and observations indicate that our involuntary reflex action is to check that new message right away. It could be very important…nah, just Bob in accounting sending me a link to a YouTube video of a chipmunk dressed as a character from Lord of the Rings.

What happens with the next popup\beep\vibration? We check our mail! Involuntarily we take a peek at what just landed in our inbox. Sure, I’m in a meeting\grocery store\doctor’s office\in the movie theater\on the train\on a date\in a coma, but I need to check this mail – NOW! This whole routine may even be bad for your health.

How can you break the rush to the mailbox habit? Here are 10 tips to break the inbox habit:

  1. Turn off new email notifications. It is disruptive to whatever you are doing at the time. It will be painful at first, but you can do it.  This includes beeps, popups, and system tray icons.
  2. Schedule 2-3 times per day when you check mail and stick to it. If someone really needs to get in touch with you they will call you or visit you atyour desk. This is even more painful, but well worth the effort.  This step is more effective when people are aware of your email checking schedule.  That will set the appropriate expectation.
  3. Unsubscribe to all the junk to which you’ve intentionally and unintentionally subscribed. You are most likely not reading the stuff anyway.
  4. Keep your inbox empty. Use rules and filters to move mail to specific folders or the trash.  Don’t be shy about using the “delete” key.  It is stressful looking at 50 messages in your inbox and can lead to no action whatsoever.
  5. When checking mail decide on next actions immediately. If you can provide a response in under a few minutes then do it now. Don’t wait. If the email requires more time to handle then file it in an appropriate folder and create an action item for yourself.
  6. Be short and sweet in your email. Less is more.
  7. Don’t use email as a filing system. It isn’t made for that purpose. Be honest with yourself on what is really needed and, again, don’t be shy about the “delete” key.
  8. Limit the number of email accounts you own to as close to 1 as possible.
  9. Don’t feel you have to reply to every message.
  10. Train your friends and colleagues in the ways of you new habits. They should be able to respect your changes and may even adapt some of the changes themselves

Good luck.  Feel free to contribute other hints you may have in comments!