Why I Check Email First Thing Every Day

Every once in a while when reading an article about email productivity I’ll see a reference to the book Never Check E-Mail In the Morning: And Other Unexpected Strategies for Making Your Work Life Work by Julie Morgenstern. Right up front I’ll say that I haven’t read the book, but have seen it referenced enough to know the idea behind the technique. From this Lifehacker article Top 10 Smart and Lazy Ways to Save Your Workday:

Author of Never Check Email in the Morning Julie Morgenstern suggests waiting for one hour before you open up your email inbox in the morning. Accomplishing something out of the gate sets the tone for the rest of your day, Morgenstern says, and once you’ve launched your email client, you’re “open for business” and paying attention to incoming requests.

In theory it sounds great. But I’m going to play contrarian to that viewpoint. Working under the assumption that you don’t literally roll out of bed and check your email (I don’t particularly think that’s healthy, I like to hit the gym up first thing in the morning), and working under the assumption that you have good email habits like I’ve outlined in prior posts (filtering non important emails, only checking email at set intervals, keeping your inbox empty, etc), then I think checking email is the absolute smartest thing to do when you first sit down to work in the morning.

Here’s why. As a business owner (or, really anyone with an important job) you’re constantly running into little “emergencies”. It seems crazy to think that whatever little productive task you’re accomplishing at the beginning of the day is more important than putting out a fire. If our server is down, I get a text message alert and I’m on it no matter what time of day. Otherwise, anything important I get notified via email. I auto-filter out the unimportant stuff (like newsletters and notifications of sales that come through DI) so that my inbox generally consists of customer service questions, email alerts of odd things that happen on our sites, emails from my partners, and stuff related to my blog. The blog stuff can wait, and usually does. The rest of it is far more important than anything else I would have been working on.

On any given day my project work typically involves working on programming a feature for DI or LP, or working on some marketing initiative related to one or the other. A routine customer service question for DI might involve someone having trouble checking out or applying a coupon code. An email alert might involve someone who hit refresh during checkout and got charged twice. My partners might have noticed a bug on one of the sites. Which seems more important to you? Taking care of your customers is and always will be more important than establishing positive momentum on my work day. For me, I’m more stressed out working on programming something when I know there could be stuff sitting in my inbox that is holding up someone from getting their order shipped out today. It doesn’t make a difference if the new feature is delayed by a few hours or a few days even, but it does matter if there’s a customer waiting on a reply or something is seriously wrong with one of our sites.

Essentially, for me it boils down to this. Emergencies always supersede project work. And if you are trying to provide great customer service, that too should also supersede project work.

I feel like this translates well to other jobs too. No matter what type of work you do, there’s always unforeseen things that should immediately jump to the top of your priority list. If you have clients that have a major issue with their site, you’re better off all around just knowing about it right away and fixing it ASAP. They’ll be happier and you’ll be happier. And if it isn’t a major issue, you’ll feel better emailing them an ETA on the fix, and they’ll feel better by hearing from you.

Now of course, if you took this too far you’d have your inbox open all day long and constantly be interrupted. Which is why I prefaced this by saying that if you’re like me (you have projects and customer service, both of which are important) you’ve got to be relatively strict with when you have your inbox open and when you don’t. The big difference with the morning is that it’s likely been 12+ hours since your last email check. Adding an extra hour, especially when you have shipping windows like us, doesn’t make sense. Not checking email again until noon or 4 PM isn’t a big deal because those people are waiting a few hours at most. I’ve added a quick email check to my day around 1 PM because I know that’s the latest I can contact someone in the warehouse and get something adjusted before FedEx arrives around 2:30. I tend to check around 8:30 AM, 1 PM, and 5:30 PM, and it works out great – prompt replies for customers, especially during business hours, and still plenty of time with my inbox closed so I can get stuff done.

Anyway, in theory the idea of waiting to check your email might make sense, but in practice it just doesn’t work for me.

5 comments on Why I Check Email First Thing Every Day

  1. Tim Coleman says:

    This is a really interesting subject that I don’t want to say I’m struggling with, but I’m trying to create a system of sorts that is efficient, effective and does not force me to check email every ten minutes. I’m sure as things evolve the right path will become very obvious.

    As for the people who say flat out do or flat out do not, they are, in my opinion, narrow minded fools. No two businesses are the same and to apply a preconceived theory to all businesses is just not intelligent. If you are waiting to solve a problem, or following up on something critical sometimes you simply have to be glued to your inbox, it’s one of the many unique aspects of a web business. Thankfully for most all of us critical problems aren’t really that critical, it’s not as though someone is going to die if they don’t get their wax shipped to them on time, that said they may cancel their order, never order again and tell everyone that you guys are terrible. That is a very hypothetical situation, it’s just an example that while the outcome may be unfavorable, it’s not like we are surgeons 🙂

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Totally Tim. None of this is life or death kind of stuff. It’s more, optimizing your approach than your biz succeeding vs it failing. And while I do generalize and think my situation is similar to other web business owners, certainly I’m only able to speak to my situation. Some web jobs – sales, customer service come to mind – almost by nature require that your inbox stay open all day long. I’m coming at this from the perspective of the guy who is handling a little bit of everything and has to make sure that I try to get the best of both worlds – uninterrupted time to work on projects, while still being responsive to our customers and our tech issues.

      • Adam McFarland says:

        Oh also, I think you’re correct in assuming that as things evolve the “correct” system will be obvious to you. I’ve been honing my system for a few years now. With the introduction of everything new we do (especially LockerPulse) I’ve had to tweak things to make sure I wasn’t being stubborn and following my system for the sake of following my system and not doing what’s best for the overall good of the business, which I think is that balance between productivity and availability.

  2. Rob says:

    Good article. I think blindly following any rule that is just really a catchy title written to sell books would be silly. Same with Tim Ferris – nobody really believes he only works 4 hours a week, he just reclassified work.

    I’ve got to admit it, I am a bit of an email addict. If I have access to the internet, I’ll check my email ever 5 minutes until I catch myself doing it. However, I do have a few things I do which I find helps me:

    -No email AT ALL while on holiday – I recently went to France for 12 days and didn’t check email once. I left my business partner in charge and fully trusted him to take care of any issues. He did, it was fine. I had my phone if an emergency happened, but it didn’t.
    -I don’t believe in the “one inbox” rule. I have 3. One is personal, one is for one business, one is for another. That way, I can check personal email on the weekend without seeing anything business related, or if I’m dealing with a specific issue in one business I can do so without risking seeing something distracting to do with the other business.
    -I ferociously archive emails and make extensive use of followupthen.com to make sure that if something is handled or is not currently relevant, it’s not in my inbox. As well as minimising distractions, because the title bar of my webmail inboxes tell me how many emails are waiting before the page even loads this means I can often close the page before it’s finished loading if there’s nothing there.

    What I think is clear from the article and comments is that having a customer services person / PA would help you a lot (though I’m not saying they’d be cost effective). They could deal with the minor issues, and only filter the important ones to you – whether coming to you in person or forwarding to your cell.

    On that note, What about people who have email on their cell? How does that fit in with the only checking email sporadically thing? I purposely don’t have a smart phone because I don’t want email all the time. I’m bad enough just in front of the computer…. Plus, It saves me worrying about a shiny phone and high monthly bills!

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Good insight Rob.

      Yes, a customer service person will probably be full-time employee #2 in 2011.

      I had never heard of followupthen, pretty cool concept 🙂

      I don’t know about everyone else, but I have my email set up on my smartphone for emergencies only. I think I’ve checked it twice when we were having server issues and I was waiting for emails from our hosting company. Most of my email requires me taking action in the browser to do something so I don’t find it very practical. If I was traveling a lot I might do it during downtime just to delete/archive.

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