My name is Chris and I am an email addict. I confess that I may relapse at any moment. But, for now I have my email habit under control.
Slowly I have been reducing my dependence until just recently I took control and decided to check my email once each day at 3.00 pm in the afternoon. At that time I deal with every email that I have received in the past twenty four hours.
The good news is my world hasn’t fallen apart. Even better news is that I am finding some tangible benefits in limiting my access to this important part of our modern communication.
Below is a list of five benefits that I have noticed since getting my email habit under control:
1. I spend more time on focussed activities.
One of the key issues about feeding my addiction was that it needed gratification several times an hour. My life was consumed by clicking from whatever I was doing to seeing what had arrived in my inbox. At one point I was receiving at least 60 emails an hour. The constant alert of a new arrival left me in a state of permanent distraction.
Focus is all about maintaining a sustained effort. This was not possible in my constant state of distraction. The result was that my productivity was at an all time low. Even though I was engaged in activity the whole time rarely was it actually getting the jobs done that needed to get done.
Nowadays I can sit down and write a 2000 word post in one sitting. I don’t find my attention wandering back to the inbox because I know that can wait till 3.00 pm this afternoon. This type of focus is required for some of the larger tasks that I need to attend to.
2. I no longer need the instant gratification of opening the next email.
My system went into withdrawal for a period of time. I remember the empty feeling after I first shut off notifications on my mobile phone. This was the complete turning off not just putting things on silent. I think that quiet mode’s vibration is even more torture because you know something has arrived but you have to wait till you can check without being noticed. The instant gratification is delayed.
I am discovering that I am able to wait and appreciate the reward that comes from consistently applying myself in extended bursts. What is emerging is far more gratifying than the quick injection of dopamine that my body had become used to. According to Psychology.org the desire for instant gratification comes from a desire for dopamine. Researcher Kent Berridge writes,
“These two systems, the “wanting” (dopamine) and the “liking” (opioid) are complementary. The wanting system propels you to action and the liking system makes you feel satisfied and therefore pause your seeking. If your seeking isn’t turned off at least for a little while, then you start to run in an endless loop. The dopamine system is stronger than the opioid system. You tend to seek more than you are satisfied. Evolution again — seeking is more likely to keep you alive than sitting around in a satisfied stupor.”
I was a victim to an endless search for those chemicals that I find most gratifying. I have learned to replace these short term bursts of pleasure with the satisfaction of committing to a task and seeing it to completion.
3. I can take time out without being anxious.
Weekends are mine again. I can take time out to refresh and relax. Usually when the time comes to return to work I am able to do this enthusiastically. I think that this is because my creative store is replenished and waiting to do something.
A settled restlessness
A tightening surge rises from within,
Uncertainty, fearfully, remembering,
Breaks the imagined calm,
Too much, too fast, too soon,
Restlessness breaks in on every task.
Serenity is imagined from my soul’s mind,
Hopefully, trusting, relearning,
Reality is almost in sight,
Rest, slow down, wait,
A settling transforms whatever comes today.
I wrote this poem as I was considering my anxious state that drove me to an incessant email checking. Rest is such a welcome friend but it required a more settled approach to my life. I needed to accept whatever came that day and learn again how to prioritise. In my anxiousness everything felt urgent and important. This became overwhelming to the point of damaging my health.
Each day I know how my day will start. I am a morning person so I don’t want to waste my creative energy answering email. Nowadays I dedicate that most productive time to doing my most creative work. Rather than being anxious I tend to look forward to the tasks that lay ahead for me on any day.
4. I sleep better at night.
One of the things that I used to dread was going to bed because of the anticipation of a mass of emails to wade through the next morning. Often I would be checking emails till late at night to try to cut down on the number of emails that would await me in the morning.
Going to sleep is now a welcome part of my daily rhythm. I am thankful that I will wake rested to a new day that has new possibilities ahead. The half settled sleep of worry that I used to have when I went to sleep concerned about what message may arrive during the night is becoming a distant memory. If I do wake I no longer check what’s come in on my mobile phone hoping that my wife doesn’t catch me.
5. I am not constantly distracted.
I was constantly distracted by my inflow of emails. A side effect was that I found it very difficult to delete anything in case it may be important sometime in the future. What happened was that with too much information coming to me I had no time to develop a filter to know what was important and what could be discarded. This overload of information left me constantly distracted.
Our obsession with what may be contained in the latest email that we receive is an indulgence that we can’t afford. Our minds are becoming bloated with information. The fear that something important may be missed is rarely realised.
Alain de Botton says that we need to have periods of fasting from all of this is we are ever going to be able to concentrate. My email checking routine allows space from the self imposed expectation of needing to respond instantly to something that more often than not can wait.
Three key strategies that helped me:
I turned off notifications on the mobile phone – That constant ping that tells you something has arrived is not a part of my life. My advice is to not even play with the idea that you can get away with silent so no one knows about your addiction. This is only fooling yourself.
I started by unplugging for a weekend – It’s always good to start with small victories. The weekend is a good starting point to begin disciplining a chronic email habit.
I ruthlessly unsubscribe – Companies are constantly trying to get email addresses so that they can get their email message to you. Sometimes you need to supply your email address but the law is they need to have an unsubscribe function. Use it ruthlessly. They rarely will have information you need in a mass email. If you do need information you can always go back to that company’s website. I used to get close to 100 emails a day. Now I can get less than 20 emails for the whole day. Unsubscribe!