For an entire week, I stopped checking my five (yes, I said five) email accounts between the hours of 6 PM and 8 AM. And, I lived to not only tell the tale—but also learn something from it.
Let me just start by saying this—I felt ridiculous even coming up with this experiment. Why? In the grand scheme of things, 14 hours a day seems like no time at all. The fact that I managed to tear myself away from my accounts for that measly amount of time seemed totally unimpressive. But, in all honesty, it still made me fee like Tom Hanks in Castaway.
If you consider the fact that Americans spend approximately 6.3 hours per day checking emails, it’s pretty obvious that we’re all obsessed with our inboxes. Not in a good way, but rather in a must-check-every-five-seconds way. We scroll while we’re out to eat with friends. We read while we’re in line at the pharmacy. Hey, even 42% of us check our messages while we’re in the bathroom. Honestly, if 1997 could see us now.
Well, I decided to put my foot down and say, “No more!” OK, well, maybe not no more—after all, I pretty much need email to make a living. But, I did want to see what would happen if I cut back on my compulsive Gmail scrolling at least a little bit.
So, here are five lessons my restricted usage taught me. Put your phone down and join me on the journey.
1. Email Is a Habit
Since I spend most of the workday—a time when I had allowed myself to check—in front of my computer, I assumed that my laptop wouldn’t be my downfall in this experiment. Instead, I knew that my pesky iPhone would be the culprit in luring me toward my forbidden inbox.
So, before beginning my challenge, I took the time to physically remove all of my accounts from my phone to proactively eliminate any temptation. Yes, it required a little extra legwork, but hey, I’m dedicated to my craft.
But, even after I did that, I seriously can’t tell you how many times I absentmindedly reached for my phone and took a look to see if I had any new messages. It was as subconscious and natural as breathing or blinking. What times did I find myself doing that most often? Right when I woke up in the morning and when I was relaxing on the couch at night.
After a few days, my compulsive phone grabbing slowed down a bit (although, in the interest of honest journalism, it never completely stopped). But, this experiment made me realize how often I tend to snag it without even consciously thinking about it.
2. Nothing Is Really That Urgent
One of my biggest fears about separating myself from my email for an extended (am I allowed to say 14 hours is extended?) period of time was that I’d miss something incredibly urgent. I’m not sure what I thought that would be—I’m not the President or a trauma surgeon. But, I think we can all relate to that innate pressure to tackle messages and respond immediately.
However, when I shut myself off from that form of communication for the entire evening, absolutely nothing Earth shattering or tragic happened. I simply replied back and took care of things once my ban expired in the morning.
The fact that we’re all constantly connected instills this unnecessary sense of urgency in all of us. But, the fact that not even one sender followed up to see if I received his or her message after I didn’t reply back immediately made me wonder—do any of us actually expect other people to respond within mere minutes, or is all of that rush and hurry totally self-imposed?
3. I Haven’t Been Paying Attention
My husband and I sat down to watch an episode of Netflix’s Jessica Jones, which we had been totally engrossed in. Well, at least, I thought I had been totally engrossed in it. Suddenly, a character said something, which caused me to turn to my husband and ask, “Wait, when did that happen?!” He replied with, “Uhh… like two episodes ago.”
I can only imagine that I was distracted when it happened—haphazardly scrolling through my messages while only half watching the show over the top of my iPhone screen. And, while it’s probably not as detrimental as missing something like your baby’s first steps, it made me realize that my inbox was serving as a near constant distraction in my life.
I thought that I was one of those people who was always in the moment and actively engaged in the world around me. But, I was wrong. I don’t even want to know how many conversations and opportunities I’ve half-assed simply because I was too absorbed in my email.
4. I’ve Become Socially Awkward
I tend to picture myself as a pretty social person—I like to think that I’m outgoing and generally easy to talk to. But, not having my inbox as a crutch opened my eyes to something horrifying: I’ve become a little socially awkward.
The “aha!” moment occurred when I was at dinner with my mom who, by the way, was positively thrilled with the news of this experiment and tried to convince me that it should last forever—and not just one week. As I always do, I set my phone on the dinner table (old habits die hard). Throughout the meal, I found myself falling victim to the trap of absentmindedly reaching toward my phone in order to check my messages.
I was instantly appalled and embarrassed. Here I was, enjoying a dinner with the very woman who taught me how to tie my own shoes. And, on some subconscious level, I thought that a potential junk email from Chipotle deserved more attention than her.
Of course, like all of you, I’ve been bombarded by all of those studies and stories about how we no longer know how to engage in real conversations. However, I had assumed that was all directed at other people—not me. But, no. To my horror, I had turned into one of those statistics somewhere along the way.
5. I Can Live Without It
Alright, well maybe live without it is a bit of a strong statement—because, like I said, I need it in order to make a living. But, if this experiment taught me anything, it’s that email doesn’t need to be nearly as big of deal as I make it out to be.
When I stopped compulsively checking in, nobody died. My freelance writing business didn’t crumble to the ground. I didn’t miss out on any major discounts or promotions that I had to know about.
Yes, important messages come up now and then, and I’ll need to deal with those when they happen. But, that doesn’t mean I need to rely on my email as if it’s my third arm. They will all still be waiting for me—even if it takes me a few hours to get to them.
I could never cut myself off cold turkey from email altogether (gasp, the horror!). But, even limiting my usage for a week was an incredibly enlightening experience. So, I want to know. Have you ever restricted how often you check your inbox? What happened to you? Tell me your story on Twitter!
Kat is a Midwest-based freelance writer, covering topics related to careers, productivity, and the freelance life. In addition to The Muse, she's a contributor all over the web and dishes out research-backed advice for places like Atlassian, Trello, Toggl, Wrike, The Everygirl, FlexJobs, and more. She's also an Employment Advisor at a local college, and loves helping students prepare to thrive in careers (and lives!) they love. When she manages to escape from behind her computer screen, she's usually babying her two rescue mutts or continuing her search for the perfect taco. Say hi on Twitter @kat_boogaard or check out her website.More from this Author