For years, I started my workdays by checking email. It seemed like an easy way to start, but it’s not. Like most people’s, my email box is always filled with things that others want me to do — preferably immediately. It leaves me feeling torn in many different directions. After reading through my email, I ended up aimlessly rushing from task to task, frequently abandoning an unfinished task to pick up something else instead.

All the switching back and forth is ineffective because human brains aren’t designed for it. Each time we switch tasks, our attention lingers on the previous task, distracting and slowing us down. It was also exhausting, and being exhausted made me even more ineffective.

Why did I fall for this every morning? The main problem was that I didn’t have a clear idea about what I wanted to accomplish. And the urgency in my inbox gave me an easy way to feel like I was being productive and helpful. Since I didn’t have my own to-do list, I substituted other people’s lists. I got stuff done but not the stuff that mattered to me.

I realized that to regain control of my workdays, I needed to change my habit of opening my inbox first. Since I also needed to have my own to-do and priorities list, I simply replaced one morning habit with another. In other words, I followed Ashton Kutcher’s lead:

I spend the first hour of my work not looking at email, and actually just writing out what it is that I want to accomplish in a given day.

Breaking the ’email first’ habit took a few weeks because it was so deeply engrained in my morning routine. But I managed to do it. Here’s what I did:

  • Removed all notifications from my work email on all devices — I even uninstalled the work email app from my phone to make it harder to check email without thinking.
  • Stopped turning on my computer first thing in the morning because I needed to disrupt the habit of opening the email right afterwards. Once I turned the computer on, it was simply too hard to keep myself from opening the email next. Instead, I started writing my to-do list on paper.
  • Made my new habit of writing the to-do list more pleasant (a comfortable chair, a cup of my favorite tea, a nice pen), letting it become an enjoyable time of calm and reflection.

This change made checking my email a very different experience because now I consider other people’s requests in the light of what I already know I wanted to get done. And so I ask: How will doing what they are asking affect my plan for the day? Will it get in the way of me doing other things? What is more important? I make judgment calls. I ignore my boss’ requests at my own peril, so they go on the list, and so do time sensitive and important requests. When I add things, I also postpone other things until another day. And I refuse some requests. Some of the things that people ask me to do really don’t need to get done –at least not by me.

Knowing what my priorities are makes it much easier to sort all of this out. I still feel guilty when I say no to people instead of being helpful. But I say no anyway. And when I turn the computer on, I know why I’m doing it, so I don’t absentmindedly open my email next. I count all this as progress.

The Ashton Kutcher story is here.