My name is Crawford, and I’m an email addict.
It started out as a subtle affair: just a quick check of my inbox every now and then to see if there was anything at work that needed my attention.
But over time, the habit got got worse.
Over the past few months, I began to notice that I was checking email all. the. time. First thing when I woke up in the morning, last thing before I went to bed.
Waiting to order at my favorite coffee shop? Email.
A few minutes in between phone calls at work? Oh, I need to respond to that client…
20 minutes before my next meeting? Maybe I can get to inbox zero!
Note: you can replace this compulsive email-checking behavior with nearly any digital activity. For some, it’s Instagram. For others, texting. It doesn’t matter the activity we choose to distract ourselves with – what does matter is the very fact that we’re incapable of just sitting, waiting, with nothing to do, nothing to distract us.
My inbox has become a modern-day idol. It’s an object to which I return day after day, wondering what it will bring forth for my amusement, pleasure, or professional pursuits. It’s like a slot machine: open Gmail, press a button, get a reward.
If I’m being honest with myself, it’s been this way for years. I run a few web design agencies working for clients around the world (all from a home office), so almost 100% of my work-related communication and collaboration happens remotely. Having begun working this way in college, my inbox has ruled my life for the past 7 years.
Why I’m just now noticing it, you ask? I am a little ashamed to admit it, but I don’t have a good answer to that question.
Why are you just sitting there?
Every Tuesday morning, I have coffee with an old college roommate who still lives in town. This week, he was running a few minutes late. “No problem,” I thought.
My normal impulse would be to pull out my phone…but this time as I did, I looked up and noticed that every other person in this coffee shop was doing the same. There were screens everywhere.
It wasn’t even 7am yet, but I was in a room full people staring blankly into a void of endless screens.
I’ve recently been thinking about how to be more mindful and intentional in my work, so this time, I decided to be different than everyone else. Rather than whipping out my phone to check email or browse the web, I just sat there.
No phone. No laptop. No email.
Just a normal guy sitting there eating a biscuit with butter and jam.
I won’t lie – it felt little weird. Around me, others were busily typing on laptops, Instagramming their perfect latte art, or sending selfies to friends who were not present (while completely ignoring those who actually were at the table).
But not me. I just sat there, attracting attention from passers-by who glanced up from their phones, staring at me like some psychopath who’s recently escaped from an institution.
It was uncomfortable…and I loved it.
We’re All Uncomfortable
My compulsive email-checking behavior has revealed to me that not only do I have a problem, but there is a problem I believe is endemic in our society: we’re deeply uncomfortable.
Not a physical discomfort, but a more nuanced kind.
We’re uncomfortable with silence. We’re uncomfortable being bored. We’re uncomfortable with empty spaces in our lives that used to be filled with deeper thinking and thought-provoking conversations.
We’re deeply dissatisfied with any sort of inactivity, so we seek it out in the form of emails, texts, notifications…and if there is none to be found, we will deliberately create activity and distraction for ourselves, just to avoid having to sit alone with our thoughts and passively observe the world. We’re like hyperactive little children: we feel the need to be doing something all the time. Absent anything else to do, we whip out our phones and instantly settle for the convenience of the lowest common denominator.
We need more mindfulness in our everyday.
Mindfulness and Intentionality
I can’t pretend that I know the answer as to why we’re all so uncomfortable with ourselves, nor can I say that we need to shun all technology, delete our Facebook accounts, and take an extended 30-day digital detox.
But what I can say is that we need more mindfulness in our everyday. We need to design our days and our lives in such a way that we have time and space to think, to relax, to learn something new, to do better work – free from distraction or worry.
How, you ask?
What I’m Doing about My Email Addiction
I have recently become aware of two problems in my life, namely:
- I’m addicted to my inbox.
- I’m somewhat uncomfortable just sitting there with nothing to do, so I’ll do anything to try to fill the gap.
So in response, I’m conducting an experiment where I check my email a maximum of three times per day, at set intervals:
- Once in the morning as my workday begins (to see if there are any emergencies that have to be dealt with first thing),
- Once around lunchtime
- Once at the end of the workday (to prime my mind for what lies on my plate the next day)
No more email as soon as my alarm goes off in the morning. No more email after 5pm. No more “emergency” emails with problems that need to be fixed ASAP (they’re rarely emergencies, anyway). No more open-ended emails asking for thoughts or opinions.
Not only will this cut down on the distractions in my day, but I believe it will help me prioritize better. It will let me devote more time to doing deep work, to thinking critically about problems in my work and how I can solve them.
I hope this freedom from my inbox will mean that to the greatest extent possible, I will get to decide what I work on. I will decide what my priorities are for the day, rather than being distracted, with a fragmented mind that is tossed to and fro by the many things that could end up in my inbox. Pursuing a more strict set of rules regarding my email usage means that I can devote more time to thinking, creating, and achieving.
Before someone accuses me of ignoring clients and work: of course, if something at work needs my attention, I’ll still respond. I’ll still deal with problems that arise, and I won’t leaving people hanging, waiting for a response. But I won’t live in a frenzied state trying to respond to each email within 5 minutes of its arrival. I can reply in a few hours, or even tomorrow. The world isn’t going to end.
I may not respond right away, but I also won’t let myself get distracted by the shiny object that is the modern inbox. I won’t let administrative tasks get in the way of doing deep, focused work. I won’t let others’ priorities become my headaches.