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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