How I Escaped a Toxic Relationship with Email

In the broadcast industry, communication is key to getting the job done. I was a multimedia journalist fresh out of college, and took pride in my ability to answer emails quickly. Within minutes of receiving a timely message, I would shoot back a reply. In the mornings, when messages flooded my inbox from the night before, I would apologize for not responding sooner.

Although my work hours varied, I never checked my professional email at home.

I was on top of my email. I had it under control.

And then I became a freelance writer.  

The myth of freelancing isn’t all a myth. I have a great deal of control over my schedule. If I want to take a day off in the middle of the week, I’ll spend the following Saturday at my desk. I bring Clive, my black Lab, to the dog park every morning. If I need a break from a grueling project in the afternoon, I’ll hit the gym or a trail. I can always work later to make up for lost time.

That flexibility comes at a price. The less structured my day is, the more I feel compelled to work around the clock. Until recently, I would check my email during every waking hour. I wanted to be available for my clients, many of whom are in Europe or on the West Coast. Different time zones? No problem.

Late one night, I woke up to a thunderstorm and spent the next hour sprawled out in bed with my phone, replying to a work email I’d received. It turned out my client was online too, and we spent the next hour discussing a project while the lightening struck outside.

It was 3 o’clock in the morning.

Professional emails consumed me. I would communicate with clients at the grocery store, at restaurants on special occasions. Once in the dark hallway of a movie theater while a Tom Hanks drama played in the next room. I can tell you which Glacier National Park trails have decent AT&T reception, because I’ve responded to work emails on some of them. I figured that when you work remotely, people tend to think you’re glued to your computer.

I'd convinced myself I needed to be available 24/7.

And I resented it.

Little did I know that I was perpetuating this freelancing myth. No one was forcing me to be responsive at all times — I had put myself in that position. So I decided to leave my toxic relationship with email and start a healthy one. Here’s how I pulled it off:

· I informed my clients that I would check my email sparingly on weekends, if at all.

To be productive, I need to unplug after work hours. Now I only check my email once or twice on weekend days, and rarely respond to messages until Monday. If the request is timely or urgent — or if it’s simple and I’m at my computer anyway — I’ll send a quick reply, and in some cases a reminder that I’ll be available during the workweek if the client needs anything else.

· When I work late, I’ll draft emails that I can send in the morning.

When an idea strikes, or I’ve articulated the perfect reply to an email late at night, I’ll save the message as a draft and send it in the morning. This practice is efficient, and shows clients that I am responsive during work hours in my time zone. Offering a certain degree of flexibility is important, but I no longer feel comfortable putting my sleepless nights on display.

· I am getting over my compulsion to achieve Inbox Zero.

Unplugging for several hours each day is more important to me than achieving Inbox Zero. The term, coined by productivity expert Merlin Mann, refers to the practice of eliminating unread messages from your email. I used to be a big proponent of this, and kept a clutter-free inbox for years.

Eventually, I got overwhelmed and went searching for a new system. I’ve since discovered a happy middle ground where I can check my email periodically throughout the workday. Seeing those red numbers flash on the Mail icon hurts a little bit, but I like to think I’m stronger than my inbox.