Checking vs. Processing

Published June 13, 2018


Leading YourselfProductivity

A basic tenet within the world of WhiteSpace is to only check one’s email at prescribed intervals. Technology is not making this discipline any easier. The old “Get Mail” feature has been replaced by the automatic, uncontrollable push of email on every device. Want to wait to see your new emails? You can’t anymore.

But there are ways to build this discipline… and we must. Without boundaries, email easily becomes a constant distraction, taking us away from deeper, more thoughtful work. When using email, we switch windows an average of 37 times per hour. When separated from email, we flip back-and-forth only 18 times in an hour.

In addition to improving concentration, scheduling checks at intervals also trains others not to expect a knee-jerk reply to every email, blissfully slowing down the email cadence all around you.

One Critical Omission

After years of telling folks only to check email at certain times, it became clear that many were missing a key definition upholding the entire practice. They did not understand the critical difference between checking and processing.

So let’s make that clear right now: Checking is when you walk out to your mailbox, collect the mail and rip it all open; processing is when you pour a cup of tea, grab your checkbook and work through the stack of mail before you.

Here are more literal definitions:

Checking Email: The action of collecting and opening new emails

Processing Email: Acting on and eliminating pre-existing email in your inbox

What you will quickly and sadly realize is that the processing part of the equation is the ugly stepsister at this ball.

Checking is a thrill, filled with possibility and that good old dopamine rush.

Processing is hard, tedious work, less exciting in every way than its sexy counterpart. There is a reason we tend to procrastinate with it. Dopamine, that happy chemical triggered when you complete a task, is sparked by the unpredictability and novelty of checking, not the humdrum cadence of processing.

A Counterintuitive Tip

So how can we check email only at certain times but still spend time in our inbox for processing? Like everything in the world of WhiteSpace, the perfect customized solution will be best designed by you—choosing from techniques that have been proven to help others.

The most core technique and the most counterintuitive, is to learn to pay less attention to bold emails at certain times. I know it seems crazy—almost impossible—but learning to control where we allow our attention to be directed can be a helpful technique.

Since we can’t eliminate push email, we must train ourselves to process through un-bold emails without getting pulled back into what’s new. It’s hard, but just play along with me.

Between times when you feel it would be strategic to check your emails, try to avert your eyes from new bold content. Scroll down to just below the line of the new bold emails and process away, clicking one by one through the un-bolded, older mail.

If something catches your eye and you feel like you must open it, go ahead. This is a very gentle practice, but over time you will see that by training your eyes away from the bolded section of your inbox, you reclaim quite a bit of control.

Remember that soon enough it will be check time, and then you can scratch that itch.

Between checks, it’s important to remove any unwanted pop-ups or notifications that will pull you back into new emails, moving toward zero notifications when possible.

Many times we are forced or purposefully choose to access new email between checks. Maybe you are interacting with your boss via email in a rhythm that can’t pause, or you are waiting for a conference.

At these times, simply open and use the search window of your email program. This way you can selectively access new emails for individual parties, while not getting pulled back into the entire barrage awaiting you. Some folks like to check for the names of their supervisors once per hour, just to relieve some concern, while staying away from the bulk of the new mail.

Processing email doesn’t have to feel like you’re pushing a boulder uphill, but it takes time and discipline to develop and maintain those healthy, productive habits.

It may sound impossible, but I promise it’s doable, and it’s certainly worth trying. You’ll be amazed by how much hidden productivity you’ll find.

This article was originally posted on Juliet Funt’s LinkedIn Influencer Page.

About the Author(s)
Juliet Funt

Juliet Funt


Juliet Funt Group

Juliet Funt is the CEO and founder of Juliet Funt Group, a training and consulting firm helping organizations, their leaders and employees reclaim their creativity, productivity and engagement. With thought-provoking insights and actionable tools, she has become a globally-recognized expert in helping leaders cope with the “age of overload” in which we all live and work. A warrior against reactive busyness and a force for change in organizations around the world, Funt teaches a streamlined method for personal process improvement that reduces complexity in the workplace. Teams that incorporate a WhiteSpace mindset and skill set increase creativity and engagement, reclaim lost capacity and execute at their finest. Her clients include a number of Fortune 100 companies and span a wide array of industries, from financial services to technology, manufacturing to the military. Funt’s new book, A Minute to Think, releases at the 2021 Summit.

Years at GLS 2017, 2018, 2021