QUIT: Compulsive E-mail Checking

[Part of my mission to “live deliberately” involves ruthlessly cutting out anything that saps my time, energy or money to no good end.  I’m calling these things my “Quits,” and this is one of the many items that have found themselves on my Quits List.]


I’m trying a radical experiment this week.  It may not seem radical to some of you, but for me, it’s a biggie.

I am giving my e-mail the cold shoulder.

Not ignoring it outright; just taking my sweet time to get around to it.  On my own terms, in my own time.  Once I’ve done all the other things that are more important.

And do you know what I’m finding?  It’s still there waiting for me, and it’s not all that mad at me for neglecting it.  So far nothing has caught fire, fallen apart, or spontaneously combusted as a result of my letting the messages accumulate.

This may not surprise you.  But for me, it’s a minor revelation.


My Name is Cordelia, and I Am an E-Mail Junkie

Admitting it is the first step to recovery:  I have become addicted to checking my e-mail. If I told you how frequently, you might lose some respect for me.  I’ve lost some respect for me, or at least for my ability to properly prioritize things.  I always shake my head at the people in line at Starbucks who can’t stop texting for two seconds without looking bored and mildly uncomfortable with their lives.  But I’m not much better.  Smartphone or no, I’m just as hooked on always being plugged in.

I don’t know what it is I can’t resist:  the hope of something more interesting than whatever I’m doing at the moment, the fear of something urgent I can’t afford to miss. Or maybe it’s a more basic, Pavlovian response I’ve programmed into myself after years of multitasking and over-efficiency.

Whatever the reason, it’s become one endless time suck.  And for my own good, I’ve got to put a stop to it.


Save the Gerbil!

Some people may be able to handle the constant onslaught of message-y distractions. They can see that little envelope waiting oh-so-patiently on the bottom of their menu bar, and they have no problem going on with whatever they were doing, knowing that they’ll get to it eventually.  But I can’t.  I can’t help myself.  I need to know.  I need to take action.

Part of it is my Get Things Done mentality.  Multitasking and “keeping on top of things” have become near-religious doctrines for me.  But also I think I’m overly susceptible to distractions.  I’m a fidgety, high-strung little thing, and bouncing from message to message is an easy fix for all my antsy energy.  But it’s a cheap fix.  It gives the illusion of productivity, but the only thing I ever really get from it is frantic.  And I can get myself frantic enough without any assistance, thank you very much.

The best way I can explain how my mind works is the old gerbil-on-a-wheel analogy.  My gerbil is usually trotting along at a pretty good clip to begin with.  It’s just the way he is.  He doesn’t know how to take it easy; he likes the feeling of going-going-going.  But when distractions start pulling me this way and that, he starts running faster, and faster, and unless I take control, eventually he goes into hyperdrive.  He can’t keep up, he starts missing steps, and suddenly he’s launched, his poor little gerbil body pressed centrifugally against the wheel as it spins him upside down and over and around.

This is the point where I realize I’ve spent a whole day at my desk and can’t really remember accomplishing anything.  This is the point where I have trouble focusing on anything for more than a minute without my mind trying to jump to something else, like a remote with the channel scanning button stuck.

Not good for the gerbil, and not good for me.


Stop the Madness!

So, I’m going to be implementing a new policy, inspired by Everett Bogue’s great post on how to reduce your e-mail checking to once a day.  This is going to be my road map for creating my own e-mail schedule.  That’s right, schedule.  I need some hard and fast rules, and I need them bad.

Once a day probably isn’t going to happen, at least at first.  I’m way too used to always being on top of what’s coming in—and I just have too much coming in to begin with.  The avalanche of stuff to wade through if I only checked once a day could discourage me from the get-go.  (Reducing some of my excessive e-mail subscriptions, incidentally, is a quit for an upcoming time.)  But reducing my inbox checks to two or three times a day would be a huge step in the right direction.

Of course, this only goes for personal accounts.  When I’m at work, the rules are a little different.  Work e-mail can be time sensitive, and I don’t think my coworkers would appreciate it if I didn’t see their “this is due at noon” message till 4:30.  But I can still reduce my compulsive checking there, too.  Turning off those tantalizing little new-message alerts is my first step.  If you think I’m prone to distractions as it is, just see how eager I am for them when I’m supposed to be straight-typing a 20-page document.

The key to my success is one simple rule:  No checking outside the appointed time, period. Just like any other addict who can’t “just have one” and promise he’ll stay on track otherwise, I’ve got to avoid temptation altogether because I know I just can’t resist it.

I’ll just have to come up with new things to do with myself in all that spare time.  Somehow I don’t think it will be too difficult.

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  • Clare

    Wonderful idea. I’m going to send you an urgent e-mail about this post.

    (Just kidding.)

    • Cordelia


  • Red

    I used to be OBSESSIVE about checking my email throughout the day. Now I’m so afraid of the onslaught of spam e-mail that is sure to be waiting for me that I usually only check my personal email once, first thing in the morning. That changes a bit when the semester is in session because I might be expecting email from a professor or other students.

    I tried something similar to this earlier this year, but I attempted to include my work email. The plan was to only check and respond to email at a certain time through the day. Ha! My supervisor squashed that plan quickly. 🙂 Good luck! I’m going to pay attention to how many times I check certain accounts through the day and see if I can improve. There is very rarely an email that comes in that is so important I must read it and respond to it at that moment.

    • Cordelia

      I have a feeling my boss(es) wouldn’t be too thrilled if I tried implementing the once a day rule at work, either. But you’re right, (apart from work) nearly all e-mails are perfectly fine just sitting there until I can get around to them.

  • Well, when I was writing my novel {i’m taking a break right now} I used my “Write First” rule, which meant I could not do ANYTHING until I finished writing for 5 hours. That actually really helps, because once you’re done then you don’t tend to stay online too much, because well, you have to go to bed or do other things. Most of the time you would have wasted checking e-mail is gobbled up by writing, so there’s not much time left in the day to check e-mail.

    Good luck!

    • Cordelia

      I think prioritizing like you recommend is definitely key for me. I need to deliberately choose to do the more important things first, and then fit e-mail in to the (small) specific windows I assign it. I think once I get into the habit, I’ll find I’m not nearly as attracted to the distractions as I used to be. Like you said, I’ll have way too many other things to do!

  • One of the problems of email’s false urgency is that it keeps us other-focused, reacting, instead of thinking deliberately and calmly about what WE want to to say or do, no simply responding. The medium adds a false urgency in itself; when we receive snail mail (does anyone, anymore?) we don’t feel compelled to reply the second we open the envelope.

    Work emails, unfortunately, have to be responded to at once. I work alone at home and have tremendous control over every other aspect of my life but literally cannot afford to miss an email because it can contain an offer of work that, if I ignore it, goes to someone else. Or a follow-up question from my clients and they need immediate answers even if I don’t want to give them.

    • Cordelia

      “One of the problems of email’s false urgency is that it keeps us other-focused, reacting, instead of thinking deliberately and calmly about what WE want to to say or do, no simply responding.”

      Precisely! Couldn’t have said it better myself. 🙂

  • This is a huge problem for me, too. Although, I’m really good about it during the nights/weekends when I want to be spending time with my Husband and pups. Its during the day at work – a place I do not want to be – that I’m obsessive. As soon as a little (1) appears on the bottom of my screen, I’m distracted. This usually leads to more gchatting than necessary (slipperly slope). I’d love to know how this goes for you – keep us posted! I might have to follow suit.

    • Cordelia

      You can do it! From one recovering addict to another. 🙂

  • Brian

    I am a compulsive email checker too. And facebook, twitter, tumblr, you-name-it. I know it’s a problem and sometimes I even decide to stop. Usually when I close my email program, I just open Facebook or Tumblr or AIM. Oy.

    I’m going to recommit myself to setting aside time for communicating to make sure it doesn’t interfer with my creating!

    • Cordelia

      I’m similar–I’ve managed to cut back on the e-mail checks, but now I find myself on Twitter a lot more frequently. Methinks I sense a correlating quit coming up soon… 😛