For my August trial (bleeding into early September because I started late and because I’m all nonconformisty and stuff about things like trial start/stop dates), I limited myself to checking email twice per day.
Sounds simple, I know. So simple that it doesn’t feel worthy of a 30-day trial, even. Seems like it’s the kind of thing you just decide to do one day, like switch flavors of gum.
Well, it may seem that way, but this was a vital trial. More vital, even, than choosing gum flavors. And I’d just like to say one thing:
Everyone should do this. Immediately.
Email and internet fasting
What looked at first like a simple act of scheduling and discipline was actually something else entirely: It was a fast.
One of the reasons people fast is to find out what food means to them. When you fast, you start to realize that food is fuel first and foremost, and that all of the other things we attach to food are emotional hangers-on that have nothing to do with its real purpose.
You get popcorn when you see a movie because you’ve created an emotional hook between movies and popcorn and start to feel that joy comes from combining them.
Family meals come to mean bonding and love, especially in certain cultures.
Cookies or ice cream mean release from stress. And so on and so on.
A main reason for a lot of my trials has been to uncouple the true meaning of things from the emotional or social add-ons I’ve added to them. Most of the trials boil down to the question, “How much do I really need X?” When you fast, you find out just how much you truly NEED food, versus how much you’ve learned to WANT food. My quasi-minimalism trial was an attempt to clarify, in my own mind, just how much I NEEDED “stuff.” And this email trial was an attempt to clarify how much I NEEDED to monitor email, social media, and the internet in general.
So, for the past five weeks or so I’ve allowed myself to only check in on my various communication addictions twice per day. If you want to know the rules I set for myself and my reasons for doing this, they’re here, but the following are what I learned from my trial… and it’s some game-changing stuff as far as I’m concerned:
1. I was truly addicted to checking email and social media.
I’m not qualified, medically, to explain the psychology and physiology of addiction, but I think I’m qualified enough to recognize it in myself when I feel it.
During the first days, I felt itchy and nervous about not checking in on email, worried that I was missing something by not monitoring things more diligently. But even more than that, I simply wanted the activity. It felt like how quitting smokers say they want something to do with their hands in the absence of a cigarette.
The nervous feeling abated significantly after a few days, but this discovery alone was enough to make this trial a part of my life permanently. I don’t like the idea of being addicted to anything.
2. The vast, vast, vast majority of my email, social media, and internet activity seemed to be about distraction, procrastination, and the perceived need to fill my time — rather than actual accomplishment.
When I started checking my email twice a day, I found that I could get through that email — and Twitter, and Facebook, and the other online places I spend my time — in 45 minutes or an hour per day. I never tracked how much time I spent on it before, but I’d guess it was 3 hours per day or more… and I was still constantly behind and felt that I was never able to truly stay caught up.
So where did that time go? What did I cut out, if, during this trial, I was able to get through it in roughly a quarter of the time?
Answer: I cut out fluff. Distraction. Busywork. Totally and completely WASTED TIME.
I used email as a way of breaking up a harder task that I knew was important but that required concerted effort. “I’ve written a paragraph of this post,” I’d think. “Maybe I should check my email to see what came in.” And usually something fluffy would have come in, like a Remember the Milk reminder about running with my sister in the morning. So I’d note it and delete it, and then decide I might as well check Twitter while I was at it. And hey, speaking of running, I’d been getting curious about ultramarathons and wondered how you’d train for something like that, and so I’d do a few minutes of quick research.
Eventually, I’d return to my task. I’d write a few more paragraphs and then repeat my distraction as a reward.
In this manner, I’d finish a piece of writing in, say, five or six hours. Of that time, two hours might have been solid effort. One or two hours were distraction time, in which I didn’t even make serious headway on email but instead dealt only with the simplest messages and then got sidetracked. And the final one or two hours was in re-gaining my momentum — getting back on track with my writing after mentally careening off in the opposite direction.
But while I had my “no email or other internet distractions” rules in place, I couldn’t go there. So I’d write the piece straight through and finish in two hours.
That’s not an exaggeration. At all.
3. I realized I don’t actually like email as much as I thought I did.
This is where this trial really began to resemble a fast, where I truly found out what email meant to me, the way fasters often discover that food is fuel.
I’d always thought that I enjoyed email, and no wonder — I used it as a constant reprieve, a place I went to over and over and over again when what I was doing was difficult or unpleasant. Email and social media were vacation destinations I could visit whenever I wanted, for a quick escape.
Once email could no longer be that vacation, I realized that I don’t actually enjoy the “guts” of email… i.e., the part that is about reading and responding to messages, divorced from the emotional high of “taking a break” or “checking to see what good stuff has shown up.” Stripped to its utilitarian core, email became a chore rather than a fun vacation.
Now, don’t get me wrong… I do enjoy communicating with people and shooting the breeze, but I started to look at new messages in terms of the time they would take to reply to rather than as constant “time candy.” You know how sometimes your best friend will call, and you enjoy talking but know it’s going to take up a crapload of time if you go too deep or do it too often? That’s the basic idea.
4. I realized I had way, way more time than I thought I did.
This has been a busy summer, and there have been days where I worked from 6-9am, did email from 9-9:30, and then accomplished absolutely nothing else. And yet, despite a number of days like this, I keep getting more and more important stuff done, and getting it done faster.
When you know how to make the best use of your time and prioritize your most important tasks and then can focus, totally uninterrupted, on those key tasks for only a few hours a day, it’s amazing what can happen.
With email confined to specific focused times and removed as a distraction, I began to realize that I could probably consistently run my current business in only 4-5 hours a day.
And because I haven’t yet found more epic shit to fill that time that I didn’t know I had, I found myself using it in one of two ways: Sometimes I’d work on projects that had been back-burnered forever, and sometimes I’d simply play or read, either alone or with my kids.
So what does this mean to you?
It means you should do this. Seriously. For real. Honestly. Fo sho.
If you’re worried about missing important stuff, ask those likely to bring you key stuff to call you or text you when something is red-hot instead of emailing. Start using a good appointment calendar (Google’s calendar and others will alert you to upcoming events with popups). Don’t “keep your to-do list in your inbox,” which is one of Charlie Gilkey‘s pet peeves; instead, write one on paper for the day or use something free like Nozbe.
Remove your email and social media shortcuts from the desktop of your smartphone so that you’d have to dig for those applications if you wanted to use them. Close mail windows in your internet browser or on your computer, and force yourself to find and open the required windows or apps each time you want to use them. Put obstacles in your own way.
Batch email and social media. Do it, but do it only during certain times and do it all at once.
For at least a while — for as long as it takes you to learn this lesson — make rules for yourself about when is and is not an appropriate time to check email. Stick to these rules. You’ll find yourself saying things like, “Well, I can’t check email… so I might as well finish this project” or even delightfully indulgent things like “If I’m not allowed to check Twitter or browse time-waster blogs, I guess I might as well go play Rock Band.”
You will not regret this. Give it a shot and let me know what you find out.