“Wealth is now defined, at least in part, by the ability to be offline whenever you want” Fernando Gros.
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Blog // Thoughts
August 4, 2016

This Week I Quit Checking My Email Every Day

This week I quit checking my email every day. After cleaning up my contacts list I got to thinking how I could better manage the time I spend communicating with people. Email takes up a lot of that time. It’s not fun. It breaks my working rhythm on most days. A lot of what I […]

This week I quit checking my email every day. After cleaning up my contacts list I got to thinking how I could better manage the time I spend communicating with people. Email takes up a lot of that time. It’s not fun. It breaks my working rhythm on most days. A lot of what I do on email doesn’t feel essential, or at least important, compared to the big creative projects it often interrupts. This week I decided to take the radical step (for me) of not checking my email every day.

And no, this isn’t just because I’m on holiday.

Falling Out Of Love With Email

I can still the remember the thrill when I first started using email and for years, it was something I really enjoyed. I liked opening up my email, seeing the messages come in, wondering who was writing to me and what new conversations would develop. Getting an email was like getting a letter, only faster, better, shinier, because it was “electronic.”

But now, email feels like a chore, less like a stream of letters and more like a never ending torrent of noise. Most of us check our email within minutes of waking and it’s become a reflexive habit to keep checking the inbox during the day. Even if we try to tame it (by using a GTD, or inbox zero approach) checking email still continues to be a daily habit for most of us.

But, does it have to be?

Email, Availability And The Psychology Of Trust

The Internet has changed our sense of what it means to be available. Before email we would send letters, expecting a reply, but with little sense of how long that might take. Reply times were measured in days and weeks, rather than minutes and hours. Even calling wasn’t guaranteed to reach someone, in the days before mobile phones.

Now we expect to be heard and answered right away. We might even feel a person isn’t trustworthy (or doesn’t like us) if they reply almost instantly.

I shared my idea to not check email every day with a freelancer I know and his reply was “that would be nice if it was possible.” I get where he’s coming from. We often need to reply quickly to keep clients happy. Not doing so is, potentially, a business risk.

But, I couldn’t get his use of the word “nice,” out my head. After all, a lot of things in my life are nice, in the sense that they are non-essential luxuries, choices I’ve made in attempt to live well. Why should I not do something just because it’s a nicety? Does it being nice make it not possible, or not worth the risk?

Maybe The World Won’t End After All?

The simple question to ask is what would happen if I stopped checking email every day? What if I just did email a few times a week. Maybe two or three times, instead of once or twice a day?

So, I just did it. I stopped checking email every day. The world didn’t end.

I didn’t explain this to anyone. I didn’t create a bunch of rules. I just planned to open up my email three afternoons a week (Monday, Wednesday, Saturday), clear out the inbox, write emails, then log out. A few times, I’ve gone back in when I knew a quick reply was coming, mostly I haven’t. The world didn’t end.

Taking responsibility

How quickly we reply to email is only one part of reputation. Trust is built on more than quickly we communicate. Besides, I would always prefer to wait for a long, well written reply than try to piece together an answer from a string of poorly worded, quickly shot off “answers.”

It’s our responsibility to train the people in our lives how to get the best from us. I’m never at my best living in my inbox, reacting to every message that comes in, constantly available. Trying to conform myself to that pattern helps nobody.

Recently, I got in contact with a furniture maker, about a chair for my studio. I used the form on their website to send an email. The reply I got was a nicely worded, friendly standard letter. It night even have been automatically generated. It outlined the features of their products, gave some idea of what they cost, but asked that I call the workshop and speak to them in person about what I wanted. The first two times, I couldn’t get through. Eventually, I spoke to the furniture maker and we had a great conversation about his craft and my needs. It took a few days to get things moving, but if I order this chair, it will be months be for I see it and hopefully it’ll be with me for a lifetime.

Which rather puts the whole question of whether waiting a day or two longer for a email reply really matters.

This Week I Quit is a (mostly) weekly series where I try, in a personal way, to address the habit of overcommitment. Each week I quit something, it could be an app, a habit, a possession, a word, anything that had a hold on my attention. I explain why I made the choice to quit and what it was like. Last time I Quit Apologising For My Holiday Schedule and you can read all the posts in this series here.

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