August’s trial results: Gaining time by losing email addiction

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.


Comments

  1. Chase says:

    #4 for me is sometimes tricky… I get frustrated because I feel like there are things I could (or should) be doing but don’t… feeling like I should be productive even when I’ve completed what needed to get done.

    • Johnny says:

      Welcome to the modern condition. I wrote a whole post about it called “Have More Fun” that’s linked in the right sidebar. Just remember… relaxing a bit isn’t a crime, and enjoying what you’re doing doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong.

  2. I did this and it was shocking when I saw a batch of daily emails in their entirety, how little of value was actually arriving in my inbox. I could usually delete 90% of them.

    The hardest part was the nervous, twitchy feeling. I am truly addicted and I did fall off the wagon after a while when mini-crisis showed up (which I was almost grateful for because I had an excuse to check my in-box.)

    I also set myself 10 minute blocks of time to check Twitter and Facebook daily and 30 mins in which to respond to email. I gained hours and hours this way. No-one shouted at me. Or told me I hadn’t replied. Or was otherwise offended. Who knew?

    • Johnny says:

      Haha, yeah, that’s what happens. The person who’s surprised the most is US. Correspondents simply don’t notice.

  3. Dr. Pete says:

    Isn’t it amazing just how tough NOT doing something can be? It’s when you feel your hand reaching for the mouse and stopping it mid-click feels physically painful that you realize you’re an addict. We make all kinds of excuses – “everyone does it”, “it’s important to my work”, and on and on, but it’s as real an addiction as booze and pills.

    I just started day 1 of a 30-day challenge to carve my day into 8 30-minute blocks of uninterrupted work – a 4-hour workday. I’m betting those 4 hours will produce more results than any “normal” 8-hour day. Ultimately, like you, I’m trying to find that balance between addiction and quitting cold-turkey. I can’t completely give up email and social media and still make a living, but every time I come back from cold-turkey, I start overdoing it within a few weeks.

    • Johnny says:

      Yeah, I need to find the sweet spot. I don’t want to overdo it and NOT be online enough, because this is where I have friends and make my living. But balance is the key.

  4. Shanna Mann says:

    Hoooo boy. Did you ever call it with checking email while writing. In fact, I have several 10 minute tasks in queue, just waiting for the next time something feels ‘hard’. Whack my nose with a newspaper… I’m going to enlist my office mate in a challenge like this.

  5. I’m too chicken to remove email from my phone or shortcuts to places like Twitter. Though yes, I probably should.

    On Sundays (sometimes Saturday), I’ll just leave the phone at home and disconnect that way.

    And during the week, I’ve been using a simple Timer to batch my activities like writing. So far, this is helping quite a bit.

  6. Sonia Simone says:

    This is good. I am sufficiently addicted that the thought of doing it makes me a little sweaty.

    Lately I’ve been working with Tony Schwartz’s 90-minute plan (he talks about it in End Malaria), which has been amazing and yet I’m not doing it very well. Maybe step one of my detox is the commitment to stay out of email & social media for at least those 90 minutes of blocked off time.

    Agree 100% about the role it plays — I don’t actually care about being “informed,” I just want to blow off 5 minutes before I sit down & think about the piece of work in front of me.

    • Johnny says:

      The fact that it made ME sweaty is why I decided I had to do it. Why would I care? Why did it seem so undoable? That meant it needed to be done.

      You should definitely try it, as much email as I’m sure you get. You’ll find you get through email FASTER. If you spend 3 hours/day on email now and still can’t get through it, I’d guess 1.5 hours in two solid blocks will just about keep you caught up.

      Let me know, though. I’m a test group of 1, here.

  7. Ted Kolovos says:

    First I’d like to commend you for using the word “abated” in your discussion. That was hellacool !!

    I’ve tried some of these ideas myself and the “work in batches twice a day” concept is great. Most people don’t need to check and respond to e-mail on the fly. Ditto for social networks.

    Reading is a great way to use the time and I see that you do that as well. At least that way you are bettering yourself each and every day 🙂

    • Johnny says:

      Oh yeah… I love using words like that. Every once in a while I’ll toss one in and it makes me think that someone might Google it to figure out what I’m saying. I kind of like that. 🙂

  8. JBT,
    I can hardly stomach checking e-mail or social media so this would not be a problem for me. BUT, commenting is my addiction. I feel compelled to comment everyday and when I don’t comment daily, I feel like I am losing traffic, and what is going on with other bloggers.

    I will try this experiment using commenting. Great suggestion.

    • Johnny says:

      Definitely. I seriously don’t think you NEED to be doing that much commenting. But of course, when you ARE commenting, you should definitely do it HERE.

  9. Julia Rymut says:

    I had an interesting “forced” media fast this summer.

    I injured my back and for nearly 6 weeks, I could barely sit at the computer.

    6 weeks of only absolutely necessary email. 6 weeks of only absolutely necessary work for clients. 6 weeks of only absolutely necessary email communications.

    You know what? I spent large parts of those days lying on the couch and I still made my living; I still kept my business going; I still have friends and clients.

    I continue to untangle what this means to me.

    I’m NOT addicted to email and social media. In fact, I’ve been making a concerted effort to be MORE connected and to check into the scenes more.

    But I’m not sure what value it brings. Nor am I sure what to conclude about living perfectly fine for 6 weeks with only a few hours/day work.

    These balances are always mysteries to me. When I disconnect, I feel like I’m not promoting myself. When I connect, I worry that I’m wasting time.

    The only thing I know for sure is that we don’t need as much time as we think to accomplish our tasks. I proved this for sure this summer.

    Julia

    • Johnny says:

      Tim Ferriss offers a really interesting mental exercise in The Four Hour Work Week… he asks what you’d do if a doctor told you that you could only work X hours per day or week. It’s not optional; you MUST comply or you’re dead. How would you do it?

      When you think through this, the cuts that seem necessary seem like killers, but the truth is that we’d survive. You’d lose some, but you’d keep the most important stuff. The 80/20 rule really does work.

      • Julia Rymut says:

        That is exactly what I found.

        And although I was not told I would die if I didn’t change my life, I can definitely see that I would subject to really poor health if I don’t change my life. This raises the importance of a balanced lifestyle in my priority system and suddenly I find that I have room for it. My question is why do I have to have it put in such stark terms to finally find it important to live a balanced life? Shouldn’t it be important just because it is??

        As I heal, I’m trying to reconstruct my days to reflect my new insight. I’m making much more time for the things I enjoy and I’m not sweating the things I think I “have” to do but don’t get to. I’m applying the 80/20 rule and doing my best to let the 80 go without guilt.

        It’s a hellova process, eh?

        Julia

  10. WT says:

    I find this initiative totally inspiring. As I try to divorce myself from many givens of modern culture, I am surely gonna give this a try. I’m curious. . . Did you allow yourself outbound mail at unscheduled times?

    • Johnny says:

      Not if I can help it.

      This was meant to be a “shock and awe” discipline for me, though, and as I go forward, I doubt I’ll be 100% as rigid as I was. Here’s some ways I might violate it:

      1. If I’m waiting for something vital that I know is coming by email, I might check occasionally or ask my assistant to.

      2. Sometimes, I need to pull a bit of info out of email… like if I’m getting on a phone call and we need to discuss questions from an email.

      3. If there’s something I want to do today that requires I contact someone, I’ll often just send that email and no others so that the process is in the works, and the other person has time to respond.

      4. What I’m really hoping for is that Chrome will finally make Offline Gmail available soon. If it does, I may modify this a bit and DOWNLOAD new email twice a day and allow SOME of those to be tasks later on. This way I can work on tasks that have something to do with email at good times, without feeling I need to handle all of those tasks while answering email.

      The key thing is mindfulness. Are you doing work? Or are you wasting time? All of my rules try to find and enforce that line.

  11. Tim says:

    This topic was introduced to me in the Focus Manifesto by Leo Babauta.

    Wait, no. Everett Bogue put it in my face first. Then Leo came along and really nailed it down.

    And I’ve been failing at it ever since.

    Maybe it really is the little shortcuts at the top of Google Chrome that are my downfall. Bookmarks make it so much easier to be a lazy automaton. I’ll put them down. My brain has the power to take care of such things.

  12. Robert Brumm says:

    You’ve inspired me. I’ve attempted to do this in the past and always fell off the Wagon. I’m going back in!!

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