Elliot Jay Stocks is a designer, speaker, and author. He is the Creative Director of Adobe Typekit, the founder of typography magazine 8 Faces, one half of Viewport Industries, and an electronic musician.

Don't check work email outside of work hours

Posted on 27 March 2009 31 comments

Article illustration for Don't check work email outside of work hours

Derek Powazek has been blogging a lot recently about things he’s learned the hard way, and the posts are solid nuggets of wisdom as well as nice little personal stories, so I thoroughly recommend you read them. They also got me thinking: we all have our own semi-embarrassing tales to tell, and sharing them is not only a therapeutic process, but it’s also potentially beneficial for others in the same (or similar) boat; especially when it comes to work-related issues.

I was reminded of this again last night, when I did something really stupid. I read a work-related email right before going to bed. In itself, that’s not necessarily a bad thing (and largely unavoidable when personal and work emails go to the same place), but generally I try to keep work time separate from home time, as I believe it’s the only way to stay sane if you’re a freelancer working from home (and it’s also much fairer on your partner). But the trouble with this particular email was that it contained a large amount of negative feedback. My client wasn’t being unfair or unkind; he just wanted to change a lot of what I’d done in the latest design, and you know how that feels, right? Especially when you think you’ve had a particularly ‘good’ day of designing.

The result of this was that I went to bed with a bit of a downer, despite my best intentions to dismiss it. I felt stressed, tight-chested, and anxious about what I had to do the following day. Worse than all of that: my mind was rife with thoughts about the project, so although I’d managed to clear my head of work-related pondering since mentally signing off at 6pm, I’d ruined it all in one minute by looking at this email. Silly, silly boy.

So there’s something I learned the hard way: don’t check work email outside of work hours. Don’t do it, even if you want to feel prepared for the next day. Don’t do it, even if you’re anticipating good feedback and you’re excited to see what your client thinks (that’s what I was doing and look where it got me).

Achieving the work/life balance is a hard thing to do, and it’s something I thought I did fairly well. But now I know I’ve still got some way to go.

Anyone care to share their own stories or tips?

31 comments

  1. Todd

    Todd

    27 March 2009 @ 01:32PM #

    I made that mistake once. Learned the hard way also. I checked an email and it led to hours upon hours of changes, tweaks, scope creep and migraines.

    I never check email that has anything to do with work after I am done for the day (when I have work to do). I have created my own work email and personal emails that are separate entities.

  2. frebro

    frebro

    27 March 2009 @ 01:36PM #

    I check work email all the time but usually I don’t reply to it after working hours. I don’t want people to start excpecting me to reply at midnight. Sure, there’s a risk i might get stressed by some downer email before bedtime but I’d rather know about it sooner than wake up and find I only have 20 minutes to fix something that’s gone wrong. There’s good and bad aspects to both approaches.

  3. Francis

    Francis

    27 March 2009 @ 01:42PM #

    When I started working as a freelance, I only had one email account but now I got them separated and I did something that helps me. Before I was using Mail App that shows every account together. I switched to MailPlane and now my emails are really separated. I can then check my personal emails and not the ones for work.

    But even if my accounts are separated, something I just check my emails from my mobile phone and I see that there are for example 2 new emails on ma pro account. I just can’t go to bed without checking them. And it happened just like you that there were bad news ! ^^ There are 2 choices there:

    1. You are strong enough to just think about something else. Don’t go to bed directly, just do something else. watch TV for example ! And go to bed when you think you are ready to sleep… ;-)

    2. If you can’t stop thinking about it, just go back to work for few hours. I did it sometimes and then I sleep a lot better.

    But the best solution is truly to not check your emails ! I mean it would even better to have a room dedicated to your work and decide to close it when you think you did enough for the day and never come back later. Emails can wait for tomorrow !!

  4. Matthew Pennell

    Matthew Pennell

    27 March 2009 @ 01:44PM #

    Something I’ve learned: Being in the same room as your partner does not count as spending time together if you’re on the computer and she’s on the sofa…

  5. Ewan

    Ewan

    27 March 2009 @ 01:49PM #

    Interesting topic, and one I can relate to. All too often I check work e-mail from home and you’re right – it can ruin an evening/weekend/holiday.

    I don’t see e-mail as ‘work’ and neither do most clients. What we would like to bill for but the client won’t pay for is the time we take to write e-mail. It’s a difficult thing to put in place but something that needs to be addressed.

    I’m happy to respond to an e-mail that takes two minutes of my time and requires no further action, but more often than not an e-mail contains an array of questions that require answers that need to be researched or given a detailed reply – it’s consultancy, not basic communication.

    OK perhaps clients may understand and be happy to pay for your time/advice, but the difficulty is being able to educate the others to realise that you’re not Vodafone, Apple, BT etc. and don’t have teams of support guys ready to answer your e-mail or phone call: most likely you’re a freelancer or a small studio and these type of ‘free consultancy’ e-mails can use up time that is paramount to the running of your business.

    And answering these at home (for free) can affect your home life, and as you say – cause stress.

    Stay away from your e-mail and have an enjoyable weekend :)

  6. Simon Young

    Simon Young

    27 March 2009 @ 01:54PM #

    I constantly make the mistake of checking client emails when I have no need to and then end up stressed and wound up when there was no need.

    It’s a crazy situation because if a client rang you at 11 at night, you wouldn’t pick up the phone to hear what they had to say yet the draw of email is seemingly impossible to avoid.

    I’m trying to just ignore email completely out of hours – after all how vital can that email be?

  7. Osvaldas

    Osvaldas

    27 March 2009 @ 02:01PM #

    I’m familiar with your situation, Elliot. Not much time ago, I’ve designed a site and sent it to a client. I had to wait for 2 days to get a reply/feedback what was really impatient and petulant time for me. I thought the same as you then – pretty good work, maybe the one of my best. Unfortunatelly, client sent me an atomic feedback – 90% requests were simply killers. But remember that you, as a designer always have a card of expert – you have your own arguments why you done something in this way and why client feedback would the worst decision ever. I spent half an hour compiling my arguments. Believe it or not, I persuaded my client what helped to save the time and most importantly – my designed remained healthy. A moral: when your pencil is down, use a word.

  8. Nathan Beck

    Nathan Beck

    27 March 2009 @ 02:03PM #

    One thing that’s really caused trouble for me is the iPhone. I’m constantly been awoken at 2,3,4am in the morning by the subtle alert of more emails!

    I wake up in the morning and the first thing I do is roll over and check my phone, ooh some emails! Next thing I’ve spent 10 minutes scrolling through the nights mail before I’ve even got out of bed…

    It’s my own fault I guess.

  9. Andrew Yates

    Andrew Yates

    27 March 2009 @ 02:26PM #

    I’m always checking my email outside of work hours, even on weekends. I just love keeping my clients happy by emailing back answers within minutes. They are always suprised. I’m sure it will come back to haunt me someday.

  10. Jesse Skeens

    Jesse Skeens

    27 March 2009 @ 03:02PM #

    I’ve always been bad about answering emails 365/24/7 and now it’s worse with my G1. I go to sleep checking emails and wake up with phone in hand to check client responses. The whole ’don’t check mails..’ always sounds like a good idea but it’s a habit very hard to break.

  11. Ben Bodien

    Ben Bodien

    27 March 2009 @ 03:21PM #

    I’m kind of an obsessive, and I don’t like having things “unread” whether they’re tweets, emails, rss items, or whatever. It’s a habit I’ll have to get myself out of as I’ve had similar experiences. Maybe next week will be the start of my reform :)

  12. Francis

    Francis

    27 March 2009 @ 03:28PM #

    Further than emails checkings, I think it is a matter of going away from work… and that is really hard when you work from home. It is always difficult then to separate work from personal life. I found a good way to do it: i had a child !! And now I can tell you that in the evening I have others things to do !! So Elliot, now you know what you have to do !! ^^

  13. Steve K

    Steve K

    27 March 2009 @ 04:00PM #

    @Matthew Pennell: So, so true and you can guarantee that she will definitely not see it as spending time together as well.

  14. Jdawg2k

    Jdawg2k

    27 March 2009 @ 04:11PM #

    I’m in the same situation. All my work related emails and personal emails go to my gmail account. Even though I filter them, I still my clients emails and tempted to open them.

    There was one time where I did open a client email and your story was almost identical to mine. Now I do a quick check just to see what emails await, but I don’t open them. I would stay away from my email all together but like I said, my personal emails are there too.

  15. Christoph

    Christoph

    27 March 2009 @ 04:20PM #

    I really do understand you, Elliot, and I often have the same problem.
    What even makes it harder is a mobile phone that allows you to view your work related emails instantly :-)
    But allthough your tip is really good, it often doesn’t work for me due to a lack of self-control.
    Awaiting feedback from a client, I’m too excited to wait till the next day to read it. Then I’m getting nervous.

    The way I try to solve this problem is to think positive according to feedback (even if it’s negative):
    If you get positive feedback, you’ll have a happy evening.
    If you get negative feedback, ok, that can happen, don’t worry. You can sleep on it and the next morning you’ll have a better understanding of your client’s critique, hopefully.

  16. Robin Cannon

    Robin Cannon

    27 March 2009 @ 05:34PM #

    Good article and an increasingly important attitude to take as we become more and more wired. I’ve deliberately avoided picking up an iPhone or a Blackberry, for example. If I’m working as a web designer then I’m pretty much going to have my laptop with my all the time – and when I open my laptop I’m far more set up for work than if I see a work related email on an cellphone.

    Another handy trick is to try and do batch processing. Keeps you from checking back to your work email every fifteen minutes during the day and distracting from your work process. Great article about it at Problogger, and it’s a method you can extend beyond merely your working day to take into account hobbies and other time intensive commitments. You get more done and more free time.

  17. Tim Kadlec

    Tim Kadlec

    27 March 2009 @ 06:05PM #

    Very important suggestion Elliot! Especially as it becomes all too easy to be connected all the time, we have to be sure to find a balance between work and home. As is often stated, no one lying on their death bed ever said “I wish I had spent more time working.”

    @Matthew Pennell – You couldn’t be more dead on. My wife has made this point very clear on more than one occasion.

  18. Lewis Litanzios

    Lewis Litanzios

    27 March 2009 @ 08:45PM #

    Clients give us input, we make things better-that’s what a good designer does. Don’t really understand why their are nerves involed. Sounds like a crap client or a poorly drafted contract to me. I check my mail in the morning once, and afternoon once. My clients know this too. I tell them it helps me complete their work on time and at high quality. The more they email the more

  19. chris

    chris

    27 March 2009 @ 10:34PM #

    nice article elliot. you’re absolutely right

  20. Lachelle T.

    Lachelle T.

    27 March 2009 @ 11:07PM #

    @ Nathan Beck
    I’m in the same boat as you with the iPhone, soon as my alarm goes off in the morning (which also is my iPhone) I hit that email button. So I wake up with either good news, or bad… probably not the best way to start the day.

  21. Davin Greenwell

    Davin Greenwell

    28 March 2009 @ 02:26AM #

    I agree, just don’t do it. Also, checking email only a few times a day really boosts productivity. Of course this kind of thing does not apply to project managers due to the air-traffic-controller nature of their jobs. Slightly less true for entrepreneurs though.

  22. Ryan Adams

    Ryan Adams

    28 March 2009 @ 11:26PM #

    I generally play it on a client by client basis. I have a couple of clients that are very demanding and require quick turn-around, no matter how ridiculous the expectations may be. If I’m on a particularly hot project I make sure and read those emails as soon as possible. I do end up working after hours on these projects from time to time, but like Frebro said, I rather be prepared for what is awaiting me in the am. Plus, I always sleep better when I have resolved a situation that a client is hot about.

  23. Craig

    Craig

    29 March 2009 @ 04:27AM #

    What about the times when you’re expecting email but don’t get it, I can lay awake checking the iPhone or PC every 10 minutes hoping for something to come through!

  24. merlinvicki

    merlinvicki

    29 March 2009 @ 08:48PM #

    Completely agree. Going thru work emails generally gets me thinking about the work remaining or updates for the next day. I completely try to keep away unless the subject looks like some kind of emergency requirement.

    http://twitter.com/merlinvicki

  25. Sigrid

    Sigrid

    01 April 2009 @ 11:12PM #

    I’ve struggled with email management for years, but I’ve got a bit of a system now: I don’t check email in the mornings, I work for 2-3 hours and then check email around 11 a.m. for the first time, and deal with anything urgent right then.

    Then I have lunch and work for 2-3 more hours and check email again around 3 pm.

    After 5 pm, I check my personal email and reply to those.

    All my email gets sorted into folders as it arrives, so I always know which emails are personal are which are from clients.

    I try to stay off the computer all weekend, so I don’t deal with email then, I can just catch up on work if needed.

    I don’t stick to this system every day, but when I do, it works well, and my productivity is way up. Clients will just have to wait a few hours for me to respond, and that is OK. We are not doing emergency brain surgery.

    Sometimes, amazingly, if I don’t respond to a client’s panic email for a couple of hours, the problem my client had, has resolved itself.

    Your client’s panic is not your panic. If they are disorganized and are trying to pass their lack of organization on to you, you don’t have to go along with that.

  26. Ivan

    Ivan

    02 April 2009 @ 05:33PM #

    I too have felt like that Elliot – big mistake! and I try not to check my email so often, specially after certain hours. I do it for two very important reasons, to avoid feeling bad in case I see some upsetting email – which doens’t happen often – but to have more time with my partner.

    Thanks for sharing…

  27. Simon Clayson

    Simon Clayson

    02 April 2009 @ 05:57PM #

    It’s not easy. There is something to be said for an old style postal delivery first thing in the morning and then at lunchtime.

    Most people don’t expect a response out of office hours, it’s just that we can’t leave it alone.

    There’s a Google Labs project in there for someone: Hide new email between 5pm and 9am. Or whenever.

  28. chris

    chris

    04 April 2009 @ 05:08PM #

    Like others, I started with one email account but sooner learnt that client emails can ruin a perfectly good evening or weekend.
    I now seperate emails into seperate accounts. Although this increases the time checking for new mail, I’m not bothered by work stuff when I don’t want to be.

  29. Cyprian Gwóźdź

    Cyprian Gwóźdź

    05 April 2009 @ 11:34PM #

    I agree in 100% It happend to me 2 times. Now I don’t really care about mails, when I am during my creative process. Of course as long as I don’t expect to get important message.

  30. nasarik

    nasarik

    10 April 2009 @ 02:20AM #

    I am a webmaster which requires a certain amount of out of hours email checking; I can’t say I have ever found this a positive persuit.

    In an ideal world it would be the one thing I would change about my job!

  31. Rhys

    Rhys

    13 April 2009 @ 08:47PM #

    what kind of heartless bastard would give you negative feedback? it wasn’t me, was it?

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