Intermittent Email Fasting, and 4 Other Rules for a Healthy Relationship With Your Inbox

Auriane Alix
The art of getting out of reach.
Photo by Mathilde Langevin on Unsplash
“As tempting as it is to ‘just check e-mail for one minute,’ I didn’t do it. I know from experience that any problem found in the inbox will linger in the brain for hours or days after you shut down the computer, rendering ‘free time’ useless with preoccupation. It’s the worst of states, where you experience neither relaxation nor productivity.” Tim Ferriss

It had become a reflex. Every time I unlocked my phone to check the weather, answer a text message or take a picture, my thumb would automatically — and by that I mean without my express permission — slide over to the email app.

My email is where the freelance gigs and writing statistics are. Every time I found something in my inbox, some kind of endorphin was released in my brain. “Wow, news from the outside world! Food for my constantly hungry-for-more, bored mind!”

I was checking my inbox at least 3 times an hour. It was crazy.

A year later, I have the healthiest relationship I’ve ever had with email. Thanks to 5 rules that I discovered and implemented one by one, found by myself or in inspiring readings. Here they are, all of them. I hope this will help you improve your relationship with your inbox as much as it has worked for me.

Rule #1: The world can wait.

And it will. Since I only check my e-mails twice a day, I’m out of reach most of the time. Anything that doesn’t make my phone ring is not urgent. After all, what can be so urgent for a freelance writer?

This rule is inspired by the way Tim Ferriss handles his own emails: he checks his inbox once a week. I’ve found that twice a day is what works the best for me. Once in the morning after I’ve completed my most important task of the day — that is, write my daily article. Then around 3:00 p.m, which sometimes gets skipped.

Between the two, I close the app. Simply. Not even a quick check.

This allows me to focus on my outputs rather than being dragged all day by the inputs.

Yes, I know: it’s scary. It’s rare to be out of reach in today’s world. We carry our phones with us all the time, and many even leave them on at night. We are 24/7 reachable. When we cut ourselves off from that, at least via email, it raises fears such as: what if I’m not available for an urgent matter?

Let’s be honest: how often do you have to deal with an urgent matter? As far as I’m concerned, it might happen once a month. Whenever it does, my clients call me on my phone. If you’re frequently faced with “emergencies”, just inform emergency senders of your new e-mail rules, and ask them to call or text you whenever an urgent matter arises. Problem solved.

Rule #2: Practice intermittent email fasting.

There is a golden rule.

Never e-mail first thing in the morning or last thing at night. Why not? If the first thing you do in your day is opening your mailbox — I used to do it right after my alarm clock went off before I even got out of bed — your mental space gets clogged up right away. It instantly throws you into the whirlwind of your day, before you even had time to emerge and collect your thoughts.

As I said, I wait until I finish my most important task of the day to check my inbox. If I don’t follow this rule, there is an 80% chance that I will stumble upon a task to do, and the clarity and peace of mind I need to write will instantly disappear. I will then be dragged from task to task until noon, leaving me feeling unproductive and mentally tired.

Why not email last thing at night? Because that will put your brain to work on the thing you’ll find there. Again, chances are you’ll find something unpleasant or something that needs to be done/managed.

“I know from experience that any problem found in the inbox will linger in the brain for hours or days after you shut down the computer, rendering ‘free time’ useless with preoccupation.” — Tim Ferriss

That’s why I practice what I call intermittent email fasting. No email before 10:30 a.m and after 3 p.m, at which hour there is still time to do something about what I might find in there.

Rule #3: Disable notifications.

None of the above rules work if you keep hearing “pings” from your phone and seeing banners appearing in the upper right corner of your laptop screen.

I never put the notifications on my phone. And I recently disabled the notifications on my laptop, before completely shutting down the app between checks.

It’s amazing how liberating it is not to be taken away from the important thing you’re doing. Suddenly you have the mental clarity and space to work calmly and with concentration. You regain control. Inputs arrive when YOU decide. Gone are the days when you were dragged from one request to another.

Rule #4: Unsubscribe from anything irrelevant.

Whenever I see other people’s inboxes, I am often amazed at the amount of junk mail they receive and the clutter in their inboxes. It’s because of the tons of forms we sign up for, and the “10% discount if you sign up for our newsletters”.

I was surprised to discover that many people don’t know that they can unsubscribe, haven’t thought about it, or don’t know how to do it.

It’s easy: scroll down the page to the end of the junk mail, and you’ll probably find a small “Unsubscribe” or “Update your email preferences” button. Click on it, and it will open a tab in your browser. Click “Unsubscribe”. Done. One less email per day.

Do it with everything you don’t/no longer want to receive, and in a few weeks, your inbox will be 75% decluttered.

Rule #5: Batch, batch, batch.

It’s another Tim Ferriss rule. When I checked my inbox 3 times an hour, I did the opposite of batching. I was constantly “on”, treating things as they came in, pinning them up or setting reminders. I used mental energy points every time, leaving my reserve depleted long before the middle of the day.

Now, since I check twice a day, and sometimes only once, I group everything in one opening. This means that I process all my emails at once, which takes me 5 to 10 minutes depending on what I receive.

With batch processing, you spend less time and attention on this task. It also avoids multitasking, which has disastrous consequences on the quality of your work, as explained on the website Workplace Wellness Systems:

“Science shows us that the brain can effectively process only one or two ideas or tasks at the same time. When two or more tasks of the same magnitude are juggled, the brain’s normal reaction is to slow down. What occurs is less productivity, instead of more.”

Final Thoughts

I feel much more peaceful and focused since I gave up the terrible habit of constantly checking my e-mails. Every time I close the app, I feel like I’ve got it all sorted out and I’m on top of my stuff, along with a sense of relief and peace of mind that I’m out of reach until next time.

I can now focus undisturbed on my outputs, aka. the tasks that are of value to me, that embody the true purpose of my work.

And so far, nothing terrible has happened to my work because I have escaped the email rat race. I guess the world won’t collapse if you do the same.

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