This one is for all my workaholics out there, those who struggle with work email boundaries. Academics, entrepreneurs, multi-passionate people, I’m looking at you. You always have your email on, you’re never away from it. This is for you.

Before we go too far, you might want to check out this post about managing your inbox: Clear Your Inbox, Clear Your Mind, Go Practice. There are some good tips there.

This post is one installment in a series about email boundaries. I thought it was going to be one post, but the more I wrote, the more I realized there was way more here than simply urging you to keep your snoot out of your inbox. If it were that easy we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Are you a compulsive work email checker? I was, but I don’t do that any more. Yes, it is possible to get this under control.

Managing expectations for work email boundaries

Email is meant to be an asynchronous mode of communication. Think about what you expect when you send out an email to someone. Do you expect a response right away? Probably not. We have so many different modes of communication now that if we really do a need a response quickly we have other ways to get it.

Let’s start with staying out of your inbox for a lunch break. Or a coffee break, even. 

Here’s the thing: we don’t have a problem ignoring our email when we’re in a meeting, or delivering a class, or whatever. But in the absence of what we might consider a “good reason” to stay out of our inbox, we generally tend to just pop in there to see what we’re missing.

Really think about this. When we feel we can’t justify taking our eyeballs off our inbox, we’re handing over our time to other people. You get that, right?

We respect other people’s work email boundaries, right? Would you expect someone else to answer an email from you when they’re on lunch, or on break? Not likely. Then why do we think we should be doing that for others?

Make them wait.

Reactive vs. proactive email habits

Start to pay attention to how you run your workday. Do you use your inbox as your to-do list? If so, you might be a reactive emailer. This is when you wait for someone to ask something of you, and then you do it. 

If you think about it, it’s kind of an easy way to run your day. You don’t need to do anything other than show up and check off the to-do list sitting in your inbox. 

Proactive emailing means you have set times where you intentionally go in to check your inbox. You work on email for a while, then you get out of there and do other productive things. The real pros only check email a few times a day, but this might be a more advanced technique for most of us here.

That’s ok, don’t freak out. There are other things we can do first.

The basics of work email boundaries

The first step in setting your work email boundaries is to look at how you manage your email notifications.

To be clear, here’s what I mean by “managing your notifications”: remove them. 

Ok, I know it’s not that easy. But let’s step back and determine exactly which notifications you need, and which are simply a distraction.

Desktop notifications

Do you get a ding or a popup on your desktop every time you get an email? Do you really need to know the moment someone sends you something?

We’re wired with a need to check when we get a notification. Did you know that your brain gets a little dopamine hit every time you see a notification? Check out this interesting article which is just one of many you can find through a quick online search.

Start to notice what those interruptions do to your focus. Were you just getting into something and you got a ding? What did you do in that moment? How long did it take you to get back on task?

Remove those desktop dings and popups. You probably can’t avoid the “new message” badge, and those can actually be useful. Consider either closing your email or cover your inbox with that other thing you’re trying to do if it’s not supposed to be email time.

Your personal mobile device

If you don’t have a separate mobile device for work, pay attention to how you use your personal device for work emails. This isn’t just a killer for work email boundaries, but for work-life boundaries in general.

The same ideas apply to your phone as they do to your desktop, and the strategy is even more important here. How easy is it for you to see your work emails on your phone?

I have a bunch of email addresses, and for a while I had my work email with all the others in my phone’s email app, but it was way too easy to just check my messages when I was checking all my other accounts.

But I didn’t want to remove my work emails from my phone completely, because sometimes I do need to check them on my phone.

So, my solution was to use the platform-specific app for my work email (Outlook, in my case), and my other personal emails remain on the phone’s native email app. This makes it a little harder to just pop in and see what’s up.

Another advantage of having work email on its own app is it’s easier to control VIP notifications, which are super handy.

VIP notifications

Let’s be realistic. There are some people from whom you may either need or want to receive emails. There are three people in my work network who have this VIP status, and those are people who don’t normally send emails outside of work hours. So when they do send an email after 5pm, it’s usually something that really does need attention.

I’ve set up those people’s emails to push through the app at any time of day. I get a banner, a homescreen notice, and a badge so I can be sure to see those notifications when they come through.

The people who get to stay on my VIP list are those who generally respect work email boundaries already. If someone crosses that line, they get removed. I’m lucky to have superiors who respect this, but if you have a situation where someone repeatedly crosses the line, you may need to rethink their potential VIP status.

Trial run

Before we go on to bigger things, see how you do if you step away from your email for a certain amount of time during the workday.

Funny, we don’t have a problem doing this when we have a meeting, or we’re teaching a class or whatever. But if you’re a reactive emailer, taking time away when you don’t have a “good reason” might be harder than you think.

Here’s your work email boundaries challenge

Step 1: Determine a reasonable lunch break.

I’m serious. How many of us don’t bother to do this? 

If you have an employee who works 9-5, they take one hour for lunch. Do you take one hour for lunch? I’ll bet most of you don’t, and if you do, you likely don’t take the full hour.

So, take a reasonable lunch break. 60 minutes, 30 minutes, whatever is appropriate for you.

Step 2: Don’t check your email for the entire hour.

Don’t do it. If you have to have your phone with you, keep your finger off your email app. Maybe you need to do something else entirely and give your phone to someone so you aren’t tempted to get in there.

This might prove harder than you think it should be.

Remember, if you are trying to break a habit, it’s really hard to not do something. It’s far more effective to replace a behaviour with another one.

So, if you normally eat alone and you have your phone for company, you might find it easier to have a book to read to take the place of your phone for entertainment. 

Even better: make a lunch date with a friend and help each other stay off your phones.

Step 3: Check in with yourself.

I can hear you already, with your, “Yes, but” excuses. Yes, but I’m expecting a response from so-and-so. Yes, but it doesn’t hurt just to check. Yes, but…

Yes. But it does matter. If you can’t stay out of your inbox, good luck maintaining your larger work-life boundaries. This is the real problem.

If there is really something that is truly an emergency, whoever needs you will figure out how to find you. Chances are they’ll survive for an hour. Then when you come back from your break you’ll be ready to focus on the task at hand because you have had time away to recharge.

Remember, email is an asynchronous mode of communication. There are very few things that will need your immediate attention. 

Would you expect someone to turn around a quick response to an email from you? Not likely. Guess what? No one is expecting that from you either.

Report back

Try it and let me know how it goes. How did it feel to take a real break without your work email? Comment below!