It’s been 12 hours since my last email check. It’s been tough.
Yesterday I checked my email, by my estimation, probably around 120 times. And yes, that sounds pretty crazy, especially when I look at it on the screen. Sadly, it’s also probably pretty accurate.
You see, I got tired of looking for the perpetual red dot on my Mail icon in the dock; it was distracting, always calling me away from whatever I was doing and compelling me to check and see whatever had just come in. Usually – I’d say maybe 90% of the time – it was spam, or some equally useless message. To be honest, it was probably NEVER something that had to be acted upon immediately – because if something was that pressing, I’d have made a phone call.
So I turned off the ‘automatically check for email’ options on all of my computers and my phone.
And, over time, simply replaced that automatic functionality with my own, checking manually and, soon, more frequently until I was pretty much worse off than before. Compulsion? Sounds like.
Anyway, was yesterday a little more than usual? Maybe – I had a pressing issue with an important client – lot of back and forth – and back. So while waiting for the ‘forth’, I checked – again and again. And again.
I left work a little early, as it was the swing day on the Holiday weekend. Checked email in the car. Went with the family to get my daughter’s new soccer stuff. Checked in the store. A lot. Stopped at Target. Check. Waited in the car at another store. Checkcheckcheck.
Grabbed a bite before we went to see Despicable Me 2 (pretty good btw, kids liked it. but I think Gru’s better evil). Checked several times. Into the theater – no reception. Anywhere. How did I know? Checkcheckcheck. After the movie – you guessed it. And nothing. Caught an impromptu and unadvertised private fireworks show that we heard about. Sadly, checked there too, though not during the show. Got home and checked one last time – 11 pm.
Woke up this morning and my mind went to where my phone was sitting by the front door.
But I didn’t.
Fuck That. I thought. And it was liberating.
Because as soon as I thought that, and changed my focus, I heard my kids laughing in the next room over. And my trusty dog Charlie trotting down the hall (I have no idea how he knows the exact moment I’m awake).
In fact, I decided right there not to check my email today. At All.
Yes, I felt its pull – it amazes me how much of my daily routine involves those quick checks. Walking down the hall I knew where my phone was. Felt it almost. Having my cup of not-coffee. Like a magnet, almost. Calling to me. Just a quick check.
I remained strong. Tuned my guitar. Got up and walked by the phone. ‘Just a quick check…’ said the voice in my head.
No. I held strong. And in choosing not to it got a little easier, and I gained some perspective.
It was Saturday, I reasoned. What was I going to miss out on? The client who didn’t get back to me wouldn’t, and even if they did, regardless of the response there was nothing to be done until Monday. If bad, it would dampen my weekend and the time with my family, If good, the news would preoccupy me in other ways.
Plus, the only other stuff I’d get would be things that I didn’t need, or could wait.
And in realizing those two truths, I saw all that I had to gain.
Time, for starters. And Focus.
Suddenly liberated, I figured if I’m preoccupied by something 120 times a day, that’s an awful lot time being focused on things that really don’t matter.
Which takes away from the things that do matter. Or that I can’t ‘see’ because I’ve invested my energy in a hollow and insidious habit.
And I want that time. Time is pretty much what our lives are made out of – do I really want to give that away to some email program? Are you kidding me?
So by hour 13, I think I realized something: giving up email – or whatever your digital compulsion might be – facebook, twitter, whatever – gives you back time. And that time is the currency of your life. There’s better ways to spend it – trust me.
By Sunday, I didn’t really miss it at all. Yes, it was that fast – which makes me wonder about just how important all of our digital habits really are. Saturday afternoon I made a point not to look at my phone – or even take it with me. No point in temptation.
And we got a call from some friends to come over for a BBQ. Normally, and pathetically, I would have brought my phone, stuffed it in my pocket, and checked it a few times during the party.
This time, I left it home. And being disconnected allowed me to really be connected with the moment. I met new people, really listened to what they had to say. My mind was where my body was, because I had no distractions from those digital handcuffs.
Which I think is maybe the most important takeaway from this whole mini-experiment. Here’s what I learned: Doing something and seemingly quick and easy as checking your email several times a day (or much more), distracts you from whatever it is you’re doing so that everything becomes fragmented and nothing is fully enjoyed. It’s the falsity behind multitasking, and the unfortunate by-product of our digitally saturated lives.
And it’s not just email. I’m reminded of it every time I go to an event and everyone’s taking pictures or movies instead of immersing themselves in the actual experience. It’s elective ADD in a way. And we’re missing out on our lives as a result.
So back to no email: today was awesome. I didn’t miss it, but instead savored every bit of my day. And tonight I can remember everything I did today – an increasing rarity – because I was fully engaged in every moment, instead of being mindful of either checking email, or thinking about whatever it was that came though.
What’s more, suddenly undistracted my mind went back to ‘vacation mind’ a bit – you know, when you’re away and have been disconnected from the umbilical cord of daily routine and work and suddenly see things in a whole new light. When you get creative again, and see so many more new possibilities because you’ve risen above that blindered little channel.
Yeah, that happened. I thought, and scratched out ideas, and actually followed up on them, instead of just meaning to. All because without the habit of distraction, I became more human and alive again.
Better yet, my increased focus allowed me to become fully immersed in writing this morning – where the 3 hours went I have no idea, but I do know that I was there – in the room with the characters watching as the story unfolded. Listening to them speak. Watching their reactions. Dutifully writing it all down.
I’m not crazy – if you write fiction, that’ll make sense.
Between edits and new work, I put 29 pages to bed today. Really.
And now I’m a short hop to done – couple of more weeks of edits should seal the deal.
No distractions, no fragmented concentration. Fully immersed and engaged and didn’t even think about my email or phone. Plus, I suspect that email may be a gateway to other digital time sucks, because in not checking my email, I probably spent about 10 minutes on the web this weekend.
And, to paraphrase that line from Office Space, it was everything I thought it would be.
Tomorrow’s back to work. email’s a part of it, and I’m already in pre-Monday mode, at least mentally. But I’m thinking about throwing a disclaimer on my emails – something along the lines of ‘Emails will be checked twice daily at 10 am and at 4 pm, Monday through Friday only. Please contact me via phone for anything more pressing.”
All of the rest of the time I’ll invest in the important stuff, whatever that might be.