6 Limiting Beliefs about Email That Kill Your Inbox Productivity

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The following is a sample from my book Declutter your Inbox: 9 Proven Steps to Eliminate Email Overload.  If you're struggling to keep up with stream of messages that flood your inbox, then I encourage you to check out this book and learn how to develop the habits that lead to “daily inbox zero.”

Getting a handle on your inbox starts before you check email. In order to end every day with a clear conscience, you’ll need to address the underlying psychology behind how you view email. In this section we’ll cover six limiting beliefs many people have about email.

They’re called “limiting beliefs” simply because they limit your ability to do great work. Rather than spending your time focused on important projects, it’s often easier to respond to that ding of a new message and immediately respond to it—kind of like a rat chasing down a piece of cheese.

If you want an empty inbox on a consistent basis, you first have to address these six limiting beliefs. Some of them might not apply to you, but take the time to look at each one and decide if you’re making these mistakes.

Limiting Belief #1: You Must Be Constantly Available

Without a doubt, the biggest limiting belief of our modern world is the idea that we need to “always be available.” Technology makes it possible to connect with others 24 hours per day, seven days per week, and 365 days per year. Therefore, people sometimes feel like they need to respond instantly to every email, text message and phone call to consider themselves properly productive.

This is just not true.

Yes, being chained to technology keeps you connected to the world, but it also prevents you from giving your full attention to a project or spending quality time with the important people in your life.

If you truly want success, then you need to focus and stop being a slave to your inbox.

That means eliminating the habit of checking email every few minutes.

Now, I understand monitoring email might be an important part of your job, so it’s up to you to decide how often you’ll check in. The important lesson here is you need to schedule specific times each day to go through your email messages.

Overall, my experience has been that most professional people (probably you) tend to check their email far more than necessary.

Xobni – the company that created Outlook – recently conducted a study to determine how people use email. Nearly 75 percent of the people who participated said they check their business email at home, while “relaxing” on vacation, before bed and as soon as they wake up in the morning. That's madness!

Email has invaded every aspect of our lives. For success, happiness and long-term sanity, you must take control of your inbox.

My suggestion?

Schedule time to process your email each day. If you receive fewer than 20 messages per day, you shouldn't need to check your email more than once. If you receive 20 to 50 messages daily, check your email no more than three times per day. If you receive a high volume of messages, or your success hinges on timely email responses, then four to five times per day will work.

I generally recommend checking your email no more than twice per day—once in the late morning and once at the end of the day.

Unless you work in customer service, there's really no need to worry about sending immediate responses to the emails you receive. The earth will not tilt off its axis and come to a fiery end if someone has to wait two hours for a reply to their question.

Responding to email in the late morning lets you spend that first part of each day working on your top projects. Doing it at the end of the day allows you to put out all the fires that happened during the workday and wrap things up. Then you can go home with a clear conscience and not feel guilty about any lingering, unanswered message.

Is there a “right” time for these two email sessions?

Not really.

When you process email depends on your specific schedule and the nature of your job. I recommend the late morning and late afternoon time slots because they bookend your day.

The key here is to get the best results from a full day’s work between the sessions. You clear messages twice a day so you can spend the rest of your time on the important parts of your job.

We’ll come back to this subject later on, and I’ll show you how to build habits that counter those “urges” to constantly check your email.

Limiting Belief #2: Feeling “Guilty”

When someone reaches out to you, it’s rude to not respond. I know my mother taught me it’s always polite to respond to people when they initiate a conversation.

The flip side of that mindset is it’s also rude to start a conversation if it’s obvious that someone is busy or in the middle of another conversation.

When you boil it all down:

“Email interactions should happen when both parties are ready to fully engage in the conversation.”

The problem with modern technology is it’s easy to forget that an email is often an interruption to your day. Therefore, it’s easy to think it’s rude to not respond as quickly as possible. This is 100 percent wrong. Email is not a conversation. The other party can’t tell if you are busy, swamped with work or “in the zone” when they click send. If you have this limiting belief, you will still feel guilty if you’re not responding to every email within a few minutes.

To illustrate this point, let’s talk about the television show Hoarders.

This program focuses on people who are unable to “let go” of their personal possessions. They keep things in massive piles until their lives become completely unmanageable. They experience a great deal of guilt over throwing anything out away, until they’re literally surrounded by mountains of junk.

The easy answer is to tell these people to get rid of their stuff, but it’s equally easy to forget about the guilt some people experience when they get rid of their possessions.

My point?

Many people – maybe even you – feel guilty about not taking action on specific messages. So you ignore the problem and let the messages build up in your inbox. It becomes harder and harder to keep track of the truly important things, which leads to more guilt and ratchets the whole problem up another notch. The end result is you’re sitting on the digital version of Hoarders.

Like on Hoarders, your best bet is to systematically process everything one time and then develop the empty-inbox habit that will keep things from ever getting out of control.

As we go through the exercises in this book, you might feel guilt because of the following reasons:

  • Not checking email 10 times per day like other people
  • Giving brief, actionable responses to people who write page-long messages
  • Only responding at specific times during the day
  • Using template responses to generic questions
  • Deleting pointless promotional messages
  • Canceling your subscriptions to free email newsletters

Again, we’ll go into the specifics of each of the above items. The important thing to remember is it’s your life. That means you should never let someone else make you feel guilty because you’ve made the decision to take control of your inbox.

Limiting Belief #3: Short Emails Are Rude

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking short emails are rude. This is especially true when someone sends you the email equivalent of War and Peace.

Honestly, I feel long emails are disrespectful of my time. They take a long time to read and an even longer to time to reply to. It can be particularly frustrating if I feel the sender could have answered their own question with a simple Google search.

At the risk of sounding harsh (if I haven’t done that already), many people are lazy when it comes to the Send button. They won’t take the time to research their own questions, but they expect you to drop what you’re doing and provide detailed responses to every email.

To fully develop the empty-inbox habit, you need to eradicate the notion that giving short answers is rude. As you’ll learn later on, your job is to kill the fluff and stifle the impulse to provide lengthy replies. That means if a question requires a one-sentence response, then that’s all you need to write.

Unnecessarily verbose replies waste both your time and the recipient’s time. Answer fully, but with as few words as possible. Get to the point and get out.

Limiting Belief #4: Thinking Other People Are More Important Than Your Own Priorities

Email has evolved over time. Most of what you get isn’t immediately important, yet we all feel the impulse to immediately act on it. To put it succinctly, your average email is urgent, but not important.

The best illustration of this point can be found in the teachings of time-management expert Stephen Covey. One of his classic beliefs is you can divide all work into four basic categories:

Merill Covey Matrix

 (Image provided courtesy of Wikimedia.)

Most messages fall firmly into the third and fourth boxes of Covey’s chart. While they might deserve a response, they need to be acted on when you have the time to respond, not the other way around.

Don’t get me wrong; I believe it’s important to be helpful and treat others with respect, but you should never label every single message as “urgent” and drop what you’re doing to act on one.

Limiting Belief #5: Using an Inbox Like a To-Do List 

One big mistake I see many people make is treating their email inboxes like an ad hoc “to-do list.”

If you’re like most people, you will never complete your entire to-do list. Odds are you’re constantly thinking of new ideas and fun projects to start, so there’s never enough time to get to everything. What this means is if you treat your email like a to-do list, you’ll never truly empty your inbox.

The “inbox to-do list” mentality can have a negative impact on your productivity. Whenever you open up your inbox, you’ll see those unfinished projects staring you in the face. This takes up mental capacity, creating stress and anxiety that carry over into your work.

One interesting example that supports this idea comes from studies done on the Zeigarnick effect. The idea here is that every unfinished task takes up a certain amount of your focus. Even if you’re not consciously thinking about an incomplete task, some part of your brain is churning away in the background.

Although you don’t need to take immediate action on every single email, you need to develop a system to ensure you complete the appropriate action in a timely manner. Only then will you treat your inbox as a communication device—not a productivity tool. (If you want to learn more about the Zeigarnick effect, check out this blog post where I discuss the concept.)

When it comes to to-do lists, I’m a low-tech guy. I print out my list at the start of each week and write down – with an amazing tool called a “pen” – the new tasks that pop up every day.

On the other hand, you might use software or an app to manage a to-do list. It doesn’t matter what you use. What matters is keeping tasks out of your inbox.

Now, this book doesn’t cover to-do lists, so I’ll simply say you can use any of the following to manage your day-to-day activities:

  • Evernote
  • Notebooks
  • iPad/iPhone/tablet apps
  • Index cards
  • Post-It Notes
  • Microsoft Excel spreadsheets

Later on, we’ll talk about the “4 D's of email processing.”  For now, the important takeaway is to remember that your inbox isn’t the place for actions. An email should be unopened or acted upon. Period.

Limiting Belief #6: “Email Bankruptcy” is the Answer

When someone gets deep into debt, often the only legal recourse is to declare bankruptcy. The same can be said for the digital world. It’s very common for people to let their email get so out of hand that the simplest action is to “select all” and hit the delete button. This is called email bankruptcy.

While email bankruptcy is an option, it’s usually not the best one. I think of it as similar to killing the patient to cure the disease. Deleting every email isn’t a solution; it’s sweeping the problem under the rug.

I’ll admit there is some validity to the idea that if something is important, people will email you a second time. However, it’s dangerous to assume you won’t miss out on an email that might be important.

A far better solution is to develop habits that reshape your attitude toward email. Once you learn the routines that effectively control email, you’ll do more in less time and email will never get to that point where you feel tempted to declare bankruptcy.

To learn more, I encourage you to check out  Declutter your Inbox: 9 Proven Steps to Eliminate Email Overload where you'll discover a simple plan for tackling the high volume of email messages that often kill your personal productivity. 

8 thoughts on “6 Limiting Beliefs about Email That Kill Your Inbox Productivity”

  1. I feel you on all these limiting beliefs, SJ. What’s interesting for me is how I understand all these things intellectually, and yet it is so easy to just keep that email tab open all day and when I see a notification show up there to just click and see if it is worth reading. If not, I’ll go back to the work I was doing.

    I know that this is a terrible practice, but I have been doing it for so long that I’ve somehow convinced myself that it is the best thing to do. There’s some psych trick that the longer we’ve been making a decision (however much it is ultimately going against our values — in this case, real productivity) the more likely we are to continue to agree with it. I think that’s the case for me. I keep my inbox under 50 messages at all times and sort them all really quickly, but just can’t cancel out the tab.

    I’m going to try going today with just opening up my email a few times and see how it goes.


  2. These are useful habits. I definitely use to fall into the habit of checking it every so often. I highly recommend the limiting your time to do it to only a few times a day and knock it all out in those moments. I think the same strategy can be applied for social media. Social media can suck the life out of you if you let it. Schedule it for only a few times a day and you are good : D.

  3. First when I read this I was like: “Emails and limiting beliefs? What?”

    But then when I read what you write about short responses not being rude, it’s actually a pretty good example, for me personally.

  4. I love these tips. I’m a therapist and used to rush out to check my inbox between clients. It made me nuts. Now it’s once a day, perhaps twice, and never before bed. If it’s really important, they’ll call. If it’s an emergency, there’s always 911. 🙂

  5. You know, after reading this, I was excited to put a few of these methods into practice..

    Then I realised, nobody emails me because I have no friends. 😉

    But, when I find some, I will definitely start limiting how many times I check/respond – it’s also pretty pointless having my phone tell me when I’ve received an email.

    Thanks for the advice!

  6. I’m definitely guilty of ALL of these (except the short emails one). I had no idea that these could be the culprits behind my decreasing email productivity.
    I’m going to be putting these methods into practice when I get back from the long weekend!
    Thanks for pointing these out! I never would have know if I didn’t read this article.

  7. I think being constantly available tells the world that you have nothing going on.
    I love short emails, but not at all costs. There are times when it makes no sense to send or receive a short email. If you don’t have time to respond, don’t.

    • Sure, there may be times for lengthy emails, but rarely, imo. Anything that needs depth of conversation should be a phone call. The big exception would be if you COULD NOT call the person.

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