Cure Email Addiction: 15 Things to Try

Addiction in the case for email can be defined as a compulsive behavior engaged in in spite of its harmful effects. If you’re hooked on email and find yourself checking it even when you’re working on something important and need to stay focused (including sleep), you’ll have to commit to breaking the habit.

For those of you who get lost in email to the detriment of important work and a life, here are 15 things you can try to get back in control. Specific computer steps are for Outlook, but you can apply the same techniques to your email client. If you can’t, now is a good time to switch.

  • Clean out all that mess! An Inbox with hundreds or thousands of messages represents missed deadlines, unfinished work, or broken promises. Stop keeping junk you will never need again. Get into a meeting with your Inbox and start purging, creating a filing system for the keepers, and learning tips and strategies for handling each message as you open it. If you stop using your Inbox as a database, calendar, to do list, tickler file, or filing system, you’ll be able to keep it to one screen, and you’ll feel more in control.
  • Shut your computer down. Before you start working on something important, have dinner with someone special, or turn in to get some much needed rest, shut your computer down. The less convenient it is to check email, the better.
  • Don’t start your email client when your computer starts. In Windows, right-click on the Start menu, click Explore, find your Startup folder, and move your email client out of it.
  • Make the default view in Outlook the Calendar (or Tasks). Click the Tools menu, Options,Other tab, Advanced Options, Browse, click Calendar (or Tasks), OK.
  • Turn off the option of automatically checking for incoming messages. Click the Tools menu, Options, Mail Setup tab, Send/Receive, untick Schedule an automatic send/receive, OK.
  • Deactivate the new message alert (the ding). Click the Tools menu, Options, Preferences tab, Email Options, Advanced Email Options. In the When new items arrive in my Inbox section, untick Play a sound.
  • Cancel the New Mail Desktop Alert. In the Windows notification area (where your computer shows the time), right-click on the Outlook icon. To clear the checkmark, click Show New Mail Desktop Alert.
  • Make it inconvenient to open Outlook. Remove Outlook from the System Tray (to the right of the Start button). Right-click on the Outlook icon, and click Delete (this does not delete the software). Then remove Outlook from the Start menu. Click Start. If the Outlook icon is there, right-click on it, and click Remove from this list. To open Outlook later, you’ll have to find it. Click Start, point to All Programs, point to Microsoft Office, click Outlook.
  • Work on one computer and use another one for email. This will be an inconvenience, but try it until you kick the email addiction.
  • Stop using a BlackBerry or PDA around the clock. People have lost their minds thumbing when they should be thinking. No matter how much I love email, I don’t want to be tied to it 24/7/365. I don’t want it finding me wherever I am, constantly interrupting me from something that is most likely more important. Box up your BlackBerry or PDA and ship it to yourself with 3-5 day ground delivery. You’ll find that life goes on. If this isn’t feasible, turn it off and leave it in your car when you get home (if you have a personal cell phone, leave the work BlackBerry in your desk at night…don’t take it home).
  • Find something else to do. Make a list of all the things you’ve always wanted to do…focusing on things that are realistic and affordable. Create a step-by-step action plan to get some of this done, whether it’s learning something new, expanding a hobby, doing some volunteer work, and so on. Get away from the computer and replace it with something that will make you feel good.
  • Concentrate on breaking the habit. Wear a rubberband around your wrist. Going forward, every time you realize you’ve stopped working on a project and jumped back to email, stop. Pop yourself. Then remove your hands from the keyboard, take a deep breath, then retrace your steps. Back up to what you were doing before you checked email. Do this each time, and you’ll start to change. (It’ll take you approximately 21 days to break the habit, so don’t give up.)
  • Establish a routine for checking. Once you ease the addiction, establish a routine that works for you. Bear in mind that your boss, co-workers, and clients want answers fast, but don’t be foolish in thinking you should be available the instant a message arrives. You are not 9-1-1. Include in your routine a day of no email and pick up the phone instead…Fridays is a popular choice.
  • Don’t let them visit after they send the email. If someone knocks on your door with the dreaded “Did you get my email? I need to see you for a minute,” mention how you work, and get back to that important thing you were doing. You don’t want to replace something that can be handled quickly (email) with something that could suck up too much time (visits, phone calls). But you’re going to have to pace yourself so you can get everything done.
  • Work smarter. Organize everything around you (desk, computer files, Inbox, clothes closet), streamline how you work, and learn the technology you touch every day. If you do all these things, you’ll end up with extra hours in your day. Now you can get more things done and stay on top of email too.

Start now and do everything you need to to break the hold email has on you. If you do nothing else, clean out all that mess in your Inbox. You’ll begin to feel more in control, more on top of things, and the urge to constantly check email will begin to subside. If it doesn’t, call Dr. Phil.

Update 11/29/2008: I just read an article at titled “What BlackBerry Addiction says About Obama’s Brain.” Princeton University neuroscientist Sam Wang, co-author of Welcome to Your Brain, suggested a very interesting way to curb an email addiction. He suggested using email as a reward, such as an indulgence of chocolate that we reward ourselves with for doing something good (perhaps finishing a report you’ve procrastinated about). Email is the chocolate. So hold off checking email until you’ve done something to deserve the treat of it.


Peggy Duncan, personal productivity expert