What Happened When I Tried An Email Detox

Illustrated by Aimee Sy.
“What did you work on today?”

“Uhhh. Not much. A lot. Mostly email.”

We’ve all read those trend pieces on the dangers of email and tips on how to use it less. But up until last month, it never occurred to me to try. As a writer, my job (no — my career) depends on email, as does much of my personal life. It was the first thing I looked at each morning and the last each night, not because I wanted to, but because I had to, absolutely — and it was leaving me feeling exceptionally overburdened. Then one day, it struck me. It’s not my problem. This is the Internet Age, dummy. It’s everyone’s problem.

I realized another thing, too: I was miserable. At best, I was spending hours every day trying to empty my inbox, and at worst, several days in a row. On average, I received around 275 emails a day. Without realizing it, I was putting off work to deal with email, and when I did dive into a story, I’d worry over the messages piling up in my inbox. Many times I’d end the day with a half-finished story, 63 emails to answer, and a burning anxiety in my chest. It was time to admit that my inbox had become unmanageable. Email was actually affecting my quality of life. And, in a world full of real tragedy, I refuse to be taken down by my virtual mailbox.

The solution was simple: an email detox.

Productivity pros offer dozens of tips on how to make email more manageable (Never check email on your phone! Only check email while sitting down! Check the astrological probability of receiving a timely response before you send that email!). My colleague, Lindsey Stanberry, managed to go a whole week without email, for crying out loud. I just wanted to check it less. So, I decided to adopt one rule: Check email five times a day, and no more. I’d seen this number recommended by a few different pros, and it seemed like a happy medium between checking once a day (which some lunatics also recommend) and the 9 bazillion times I was currently looking at it. I made my schedule and determined that I would spend no more than 15 minutes hanging out in my inbox for each check.

That’s it. It was simple, free, and promised to give me incredible productivity and peace of mind. If high-powered CEOs could do it, so could I.

Three weeks later, I can report that my life, work, and stress level have been measurably improved. The detox worked. But, as ever, quitting was just the first step. There was a whole lot of dramatic lesson-learning before I could really find peace. So, if you want to make a change, you’d better be ready for the journey. I can’t spare you the rough patches, but I can show you the map.

When in doubt, remember: It’s not email. It’s you.
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Illustrated by Aimee Sy.
The night before starting the detox, I basically binged on email. I refreshed my inbox maniacally, indulging in e-communications the same way I used to plow through an order of dumplings the night before a diet. Part of it was panic — but also, preparation.

This is the time to unsubscribe. Take an honest accounting of all the store emails you delete on sight and all the newsletters you haven’t read in...ever. (If this sounds like an overwhelming task itself, check out services like Unroll.Me, which can help.) If you’re only going to be checking email five times a day (or whatever schedule you choose), make sure you don’t waste it on mindless deleting.

That night, I set a calendar alert for the same time my morning alarm goes off. “DON’T CHECK EMAIL,” it ordered. Still, on Day 1, I had to consciously restrain myself from clicking the mail icon on my phone first thing in the morning. It was even harder not to open all my inboxes (personal and professional) as soon as I sat down at my computer. My first check-in time was 10 a.m., because that’s when the first wave of work emails has typically crashed. I didn’t want to waste a check-in during the quietest part of the morning. And if someone needed me urgently, well, they would text, call, or chat me. They’d find me. They would. Definitely.
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Illustrated by Aimee Sy.
By 10 a.m., I had half a story done. That was pretty great, but not breaking-news great. Still, if I could have a pretty great morning more often, that would be something.

My calendar alerted me it was time for the first check-in, and I clapped my hands with glee. I am not exaggerating. I was further cheered by the fact that my inbox, while full, wasn’t bursting at the seams. It found myself reading messages, rather than skimming or just marking them for later. I got down the list in 20 minutes (my goal was 15, but it was my first day, come on!), responded to those that needed addressing, and got back to work.

When I looked up, it was 12:30 and I had written two entire stories. Almost 3,000 words. For reference, my book is 82,000 words and that had taken almost a year. I’d just written a chapter’s worth of material before lunch.

This works.
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Illustrated by Aimee Sy.
The euphoria of productivity carried me through the afternoon. I blazed through my to-do list checking email only twice more throughout the workday. It wasn’t a perfect system yet. The flood of messages really picked up as the day went on, and I realized I’d have to re-think my goal of getting in and out in 15 minutes. Getting out was harder and harder, I found. “One more refresh,” I’d tell myself. But when I did wrench myself away, I got right back in the zone.

At the end of the day, I closed my laptop and headed out to the gym. Walking toward the subway, the day still sunny and the streets full of people, I was hit with a sharp pang of sadness. WTF? It was so out of the blue that I put a hand to my chest and kind of shook my head like a TV psychic getting a message from your your dead Uncle Larry.

The sadness hung over me for hours as I didn’t check my email while walking down the street, didn’t check it during my workout, and didn’t check it all the way home. I felt the way you do when all your friends are gone for Labor Day weekend and you have no plans. I was lonely — for my inbox.

This was the first of many pathetic moments during my email detox. I knew email had been making me feel crazy. I didn’t realize it had also helped me feel engaged with the world.
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Illustrated by Aimee Sy.
As the days wore on, I mostly kept to my email schedule, and didn’t find myself missing it too much. But after work, I was stuck in a low-grade angst for the rest of the day.

We’re all so used to getting those hits of satisfaction from technology and social media, but I hadn’t realized how much email factored in to that. It had been my default: Waiting for the subway? Check email. Boring moment on this week’s Girls? Check email. There’s someone in front of me at the ATM and I might have to stand in silence for a whole 90 seconds?! Thanks, email!

Now, I didn’t have that. But I did have everything else. Suddenly, I became active on Facebook again. I was tweeting more. In the back of my head I understood that this wasn’t the point of the detox. To everyone else, I answered: “Tweeting is actually important for my job, so this is a good thing.” Not that they’d asked in the first place.
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Illustrated by Aimee Sy.
By the end of the first week, I’d gotten used to the routine. The productivity was still there, but the euphoria was gone and replaced with a smart-ass, nagging voice in my head:

What if you need that link your friend emailed you last week? What if you need to double check a piece of information on an email chain? What if you need to email someone without actually checking your own email? What are you gonna do then, dummy?

There were so many times a day when I needed to get something out of my inbox, but I didn’t want to break the rules and check email before the scheduled time. I found myself opening my email really, really fast, frantically typing into the search box, and copy-pasting whatever information I needed out of my inbox and onto a Google Doc — all while averting my eyes from the number of unread messages. It was like trying not to look at the eclipse when all you want to do is LOOK AT THE ECLIPSE.

Then I remembered, there is a safe way to watch an eclipse. You just need the right equipment.
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Illustrated by Aimee Sy.
Not only are there dozens of tips available on email management, there’s also this thing called technology.

First, I downloaded Boomerang, a popular program that lets you write emails and schedule them to be sent later. It also lets you set reminders on certain emails you might need to follow up on (rather than just letting them sit like little unread time bombs in your inbox). Next, I purchased a desktop email client called Postbox that promised to keep things neat and organized, while also letting me search through old emails in “offline” mode.

Finally, I got Inbox Pause: the holy grail of email management. If you’re a Gmail user, this program puts a little “Pause” button right in the corner of your inbox. When in Pause mode, all your incoming emails get diverted to a separate folder, and reappear only when you hit “Unpause.” In short, it was a miracle.
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Illustrated by Aimee Sy.
It took 48 hours for me to lose all faith again.

Postbox took hours to download all my email. Given that I had, oh, a decade’s worth of a messages to process, I can’t really blame the program for taking some time. I wish I could have told it, “Hey, don’t worry about those seven-year-old messages to my roommate about whose turn it was to buy toilet paper. Just get the messages I need.” But technology is as stupid as it is smart. Even after syncing up, Postbox still ran slow and cranky, marking emails from 2007 as new and throwing up pinwheels left and right. My computer’s ventilation system kicked into a loud hum as the keyboard turned hot beneath my fingers.

Boomerang worked fine, bubbling up the emails I’d instructed it to at the exact times I’d set my reminders. But it didn’t make me any better at actually following up on them in a timely fashion. Instead, they went back to being little unread time bombs.

But the biggest disappointment of all was my beloved Inbox Pause. It worked like a charm on the first day, when I used it only on my home computer. The next day, I went to the office, gleefully Pausing and Unpausing my inbox on my work computer as well. At the end of the day, I hit Pause and left, assuming I could simply Unpause when I got home. But when I did, none of my emails returned. I searched for the magic hidden folder where they all should have been stored, but that was gone too! Turns out, Inbox Pause only works if you use email in one place (and who does that?).

This is fine! I told myself, trying to cheer up. Sure, you’ve spent hours trying to set up all this technology that’s supposed to help you, but sometimes you need to invest some time into these things.

Actually, you don’t. It’s not about smarter tech. It’s about less dumb users. But I didn’t know that yet.
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Illustrated by Aimee Sy.
Fresh off my grand technology fail, I was looking for a reason to give up entirely. Then, one day, an Important Email came in during my morning check-in. You know, the kind of email that needs immediate attention and follow up. The kind you reply to instantly, then spend the next 30 minutes refreshing your inbox while waiting for a response. This was the kind of email that would require back-and-forth, and eventually become the anchor of my whole day.

But...but, what about the rules?

Oh, forget the rules! My internal nag had become an instigator. Exceptions matter, too. This experiment is meant to help you, not hinder you, right? Don’t you think vigilance matters more today?

Twenty minutes after closing my inbox, I opened it again. No response from the Important Person on the Important Email chain. Okay, fine, point proven. I wouldn’t check my email again until the next scheduled time. In the meantime: work.

Fifteen minutes later, guess what happened?
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Illustrated by Aimee Sy.
By the end of that day, my to-do list was only halfway done. I hadn’t even started a story, let alone finished one. Of course, the Important Email chain had been wrapped up in about two hours, but by then I was a lost cause.

Once again, I felt that old burning anxiety in my chest and on top of that was anger. Really? Was I that helpless? Did email actually own me?

Today, it did, I realized. But I realized another thing, too. That burning anxiety in my chest was no longer a familiar feeling. I’d conquered it, for a while at least. And that meant I could do it again.
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Illustrated by Aimee Sy.
After three weeks of trying to wean myself off email, the biggest lesson I learned is that technology will help you but not save you. Email itself was invented as a nearly miraculous form of convenience. But when you lean on it too heavily, it becomes a problem. The same is true for the solution: It’s not about one magic bullet, but a lot of common sense.

Combined with that, technology can indeed be helpful. I now use Spark, another email program, on my phone that has a “smart notifications” feature. If selected, it only sends notifications for emails from “known” senders, so, no spam and no random PR pitches. It’s not a genius, but it lets me know when Something Important comes in between my scheduled email checks. It’s up to me to decide whether or not something’s Important enough to answer now, or wait.

And yes, I do still have my schedule. I keep the times slightly flexible depending on my day, but the fact is, the busier I am, the less helpful email is. I do go into my inbox if I need to find some info in there, but I don’t scramble around hiding from the unread messages like a vampire running from dawn. There is a certain type of brain that thinks seeing an email means you must address it, instantly. That’s the brain I have, but I’m smarter than my brain.

I’m so smart, I eventually thought to add some filters for anything non-urgent. Newsletters go in one folder, PR pitches in another, leaving my inbox a whole lot leaner. No, technology isn’t genius, but it is teachable.

I understand there will be exceptions, and I will have “email days,” because I am a human with a job and a life. I just need to decide what’s important — not let my inbox decide for me.
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