I used to check my e-mail once, sometimes twice a day, usually after work or at the very end of the night. (I know this is starting out all lame and nostalgic, but bear with me….) I’d respond to anything that was important, then wait a few days for things that weren’t. My back and forth conversations were usually separated by a day or longer, and everyone seemed fine with that.
Then smartphones happened, and things all went to shit.
Don’t get me wrong—having a smartphone has saved my ass more times than I care to remember (especially with directions…), but it’s also sparked my desire to be CONNECTED TO EVERYTHING ALL THE TIME. When I see people sending quick replies to my e-mails, it makes me want to respond more quickly too, and having the phone within easy reach makes the process way easier than when checking e-mail required turning the computer on, opening a web browser, typing in a password, etcetera, etcetera.
Seeing e-mail alerts can also get me antsy—if there’s a number next to the e-mail app on my screen, then I have to see who it’s from. After I see who it’s from, I have to open it, and after I’ve opened it, I get distracted thinking about what to do about it. So I found myself constantly thinking about e-mail all day long, rather than reading and dealing with it in larger chunks like I used to.
Between freelance stuff, work stuff, writing stuff, and other stuff stuff, I also do a lot more through e-mail than I did a few years ago, which means more e-mails coming in that have to be dealt with faster, often with higher stakes. It can lead to tenseness and stress, neither of which is a good thing.
My other problem was that constantly dealing with e-mail made it difficult for me to focus, whether I was trying to write, do other work, or enjoy a board game with friends (just checked out 7 Wonders the other day and it was pretty sweet). I hated how long it was taking me to accomplish even relatively simple tasks, since I felt myself constantly losing time and concentration when I reached for the e-mail tab or the phone.
The main reason why distractions make you feel so shitty is that despite what the multitasking masters tell you, our brains aren’t really capable of doing two complicated things at once, and switching from one task to another (say, checking e-mail) uses valuable mental energy we could otherwise we spending on the task at hand. That leaves us with less mental energy to spend on the important stuff (i.e., the thing we’re working on in the first place), which has a far greater effect than the insignificant amount of time it takes to pull up the e-mail screen).
I started seriously trying to break my e-mail habit a few weeks ago, and after a few rough patches it’s starting to really work! The biggest challenges were identifying the e-mail habits that were hurting my productivity, similar to when I started putting my phone on silent mode during writing time a few years back. Once I knew what I wanted to change, making the conscious choice to implement it was strangely…easy?
Hide the E-mail App on Your Phone
This was actually my New Year’s resolution—on January 1st, I banished my phone’s e-mail app from my home screen to my main apps list next to all the other crap I don’t use (I’m looking at you, Emergency Alerts record), where it takes an extra click and a swipe to get to. The e-mail’s still there when I need it, but now I don’t see the number on my home screen telling me I have mail and tempting me to check it.
Don’t Check E-mail First Thing in the Morning
I once read a quote from Nicholson Baker saying that if the first thing you do when you get up in the morning is reach for your e-mail, you’re going to be an electronic zombie-slave for the rest of the day (I’m paraphrasing here). I always thought about this in a “Yeah, that makes sense,” kind of way, then kept checking my e-mail first thing in the morning like I was somehow immune.
The problem is, I wasn’t immune—checking e-mail at the very beginning of my day got me thinking about newer, less important tasks that needed doing when I still had a To-Do list of old ones to worry about, which left me feeling scatterbrained. It also reinforced my habit of reaching for my phone whenever I had a spare moment—exactly what I was trying to get away from.
Don’t Keep an E-mail Tab Open During the Day
I picked up this habit a few years ago when I was working my first office job where I got about eighty e-mails a day and needed to watch for emergencies. Unfortunately, I carried it over to my other work life where I get a lot less than that and almost never get things that have to be dealt with quickly. Having multiple tabs open can be distracting enough (this writer suggests keeping only two open at a time to keep yourself focused), but a tab constantly updating with e-mails had me clicking over whenever I had a spare moment.
Spare moments shouldn’t be for checking e-mail: they should be for relaxing, spacing out, lying down, getting a glass of water, or staring listlessly out the window for a few minutes before getting back to work (and I definitely love working near windows). An open e-mail tab led me to turn my relaxing time into more working time, so now I only keep it open when I’m actively using it.
Plan a Strict E-mail Checking Schedule and Stick to It
At my peek, I was checking e-mail 10-15 times a day, but as of literally two weeks ago I’ve cut that number down to 3. Depending on the day, I’ve been checking e-mail once in the early afternoon around 1:00 or 2:00 (after writing time!), once in the evening around 6:00, and maybe a third time later at night if I’m working at my computer anyway—though I’m probably better off without that third one ;-)
Having a more controlled e-mail schedule’s helped me a lot, especially because I can delete junk mail more quickly in larger quantities and scroll through actual messages all at once rather than little by little throughout the day. I also find myself feeling more clearheaded during the day, since I’ve turned e-mail from a constant interruption to a controlled task I can start, finish, then set aside, just like washing the dishes.
If my three-a-day schedule doesn’t work for you (like if you’re making million-dollar Wall Street deals every hour or something) this article has some other scheduling suggestions that might suit your work habits and e-mail volume.
To Sum Up
I basically consider getting away from e-mail as one more victory in my endless quest to eliminate all distractions from my life, and so far it’s hands-down been the most significant one in the past year. I’ll keep you posted on how things go, so watch for an update in a couple of months…