Turning off, tuning out work email outside business hours

I recently broke one of my knowledge-work rules: Do not receive, read or send business emails outside business hours.  As with many rules, exceptions are made.  So in making the exception, I told the colleague who was the recipient of said ‘exceptional’ email, that I was breaking my rule and not to expect future email correspondence outside business hours.

He responded: “I have to learn your secret for having the discipline to stay away from work emails outside of business hours!”

My first thought: My secret is discipline. He had it in one!
My second thought:  If he wants to make a change, it would probably be useful if I explained the substance of my discipline.

So here goes …  My discipline consists of three interrelated parts: conditions, techniques and precepts.


1. I have separate email addresses for work and personal email. Work emails go to work email address. Personal to personal.

2. I utilise two separate computers: work and home. My work computer is setup to receive work emails, not personal. My home computer is setup to receive personal emails, not work. When I finish work, I turn off work computer. When I am at work (or in work mode at home), I don’t access my home computer.

3. I don’t have constant delivery of work email. I’ve turned on the software option to Send-and-Receive messages when I explicitly request, or to automatically Send-Receive on 45 minute cycle rather than instantly. This helps me limit my attention to incoming email.  (I’ve also turned off the You’ve-got-mail alerts.)


4. I don’t receive, read or send emails outside business hours. Except on very rare occasions when I’ve agreed to break the rule.
I don’t work on a global scene, and I appreciate that some people have the 24/5 challenge of a constant business day somewhere in the world. Still, I think there is room to turn-off for a period at weekends (or when you decide is down-time.)

5. Sometimes, outside business hours, I think about an email message I want to compose (either new or in response to an existing message). On such rare occasions, I may quickly create an email message with some rough points … BUT I save it to Drafts, and finish and send it when the next business-hours window opens.

6. I consciously write emails to fully address a matter, with an aim to reduce the back-and-forth message traffic that often results from quick and often incomplete emails.

7. As email correspondence is collaborative, I’ve informed others of my email practice. I’m aware that I am going against convention, so I’ve had to repeat myself and stick to my desired behaviour to be believed.
This means a) telling family and friends to use personal email address for personal matters;
b) not sharing personal email address with professional contacts;
c) not providing personal email address to professional social networking sites, i.e. LinkedIn;
d) sometimes moving the errant message from the ‘wrong’ account to ‘right’ email account, so it gets the appropriate attention;
e) setting the Reply-to option in the reply-message to the ‘correct’ email address, so future correspondence from the ‘other’ is routed to the right email account.
The last two actions can be a bit of work at first, but necessary to ‘train’ myself and others in the desired email habits.

8. I tune-out from incoming email correspondence inside work hours as well:
• I don’t have my email account open during meetings.
• I don’t rush to read emails between meetings (I’m probably using between-meetings-time to reflect or make notes about the meeting).

9. I have limited scheduled period of time per day for processing incoming work email. (Processing = read, decide what action is needed, and organise appropriately). Email received after the current processing window, is mostly likely to get attention during the next processing window.


10. I hold the following to be true:
• Email correspondence is not instant messaging.
• Business email is business correspondence and is managed as business-time work.
• Email is not my core work, it serves my core work.
• Email serves me, I don’t serve email.
• Email is communication with intent – there is an effect to achieve, i.e. persuade, inform,  entertain, enable, arrange, etc.
• Other people’s lack of planning and organisation should not have an undue influence on how I plan and organise my work.

If you adopt these ways, then expect to have to be vigilant and not afraid to inform (and repeatedly remind) people of your stance.

For people with whom I have a limited or initial correspondence, I’ve considered writing a short manifesto to put in an email signature, as a way to set expectations. I’ve yet to figure out a simple, succinct and inoffensive statement.  A link to this blog entry may well be an interim solution.

Helen Palmer is Principal Consultant at RHX Group. She thinks critically about knowledge work, and how to ensure knowledge isn’t wasted. She revels in tackling the big processes of change and learning so that ideas become impact. With her colleagues at RHX Group, Helen helps teams make better use of their people, knowledge and information.


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