My husband asked me if I was trying to send him some sort of subliminal message. I had Laura Vanderkam's book Off the Clock lying open to a specific page on our bedside table for at least two weeks. I was actually trying to give myself a push--not him.
Vanderkam talks about a study that took one group of people and had half of them check email whenever they wanted. The other half could only check it three times a day. The three times a day folks were way less anxious--even with the thought they could possibly be missing important messages when they weren't checking. Then, the researchers had the two groups switch. Same results. The three times a day folks were happier, more present, less anxious.
I would quote her for you, but someone had requested the book at the library, so I had to give it back. And I would link the book, but Hurricane Michael took our internet down so I'm writing this offline, and I'll have about 15 minutes to upload it at a coffee shop before we head out for family plans.
The upshot is that I'm going for it. I've been dancing with the idea of another email experiment for a good long time now. My inboxes--just a few months ago tidily at zero at the end of every day--are laughing at me.
It's October, the busiest month of the year in our family, and the holiday season is coming up in a hot second. I had been thinking: I waited too long. Now it's too late. I can't do an email experiment now. I'll just have to muddle through until January.
But then I remembered how an email experiment saved me when I was deep in the middle of re-launching the nonprofit I help lead. How I did better work and managed to be present for my family, too. How I somehow survived some major personal stuff at the same time I led the lift-off of a major professional thing.
With Laura Vanderkam's words sinking into my subconscious, here's the experiment:
I'll clear out my inboxes between now and October 22. That's a little more than a week, and I have four inboxes--one personal and three professional. It may take a late night. We'll see.
1: After October 22, I'm going with processing email three times a day: once in the morning, once before I shut down for the day, and once somewhere in the middle.
2: When I say processing, that means I won't just check. I'll do something with each message: (1) answer it and archive or delete; (2) respond that I'm working on it, put it on my to-do list, and archive; or (3) delete that sucker.
3: When I'm not processing email, my inboxes will be closed on my laptop.
4: I will not check email on my phone. The only exception is if there's some fact or figure I need to pull--like an address before I go somewhere. This is not an excuse to fall into a quick-check trap! Wish me luck on that.
5: And that thing about processing once in the morning—it won’t be first thing after breakfast on the way out the door to take my kiddo to school. I won’t be able to look at my email then because I can’t really process it then. Those email checks don’t do anything but amp me up anyway.
6: And that thing about shutting down for the day—it's not automatically right before bed. As part of this email experiment, I'll implement Cal Newport's shutdown ritual, so that when I'm done, I'm done. For me, that's at different times on different days of the week: Mondays at 3 p.m., Tuesdays at 8 p.m., Wednesdays at 9 p.m., Thursdays at 3 p.m., and Fridays at 3 p.m.
7: Saturdays will get the same three-times-a-day treatment. Sundays are email-free.
8: I'll try this for 30 days.
This will not be easy, even if I do feel better in the end.
As much as we complain or feel guilty about being tied to our email all the time, there's something about it that makes us feel good--or we'd stop doing it. Very few of us really have to check email first thing in the morning or right before bed. Very few of us need to check 13 times an hour, which I think I'm remember correctly is about the average. Very few of us need to take a quick peek while we're spending time with other people. That quick buzz from seeing a new message is exciting to our brains, even if it's a message that makes us groan. It takes conscious work to put down the email candy, to choose a long-term sense of presence and depth over a short-term rush.
If I were connected to the internet right now, I'd put this new experiment up on my experiments page and link it here. If the book I need weren't now on our bedside table in the room where my husband is sleeping, I'd close with a quote from Cal Newport about how constant email checking has a verifiable long-term effect on our brains, rendering us unable to do the kind of deep work we crave.
I'll just end with this: I bet I've created this post three times faster than usual because the internet is down and my email can't be open on my laptop.