I remember when I got my first smartphone nearly five years ago.
I’d put off the purchase for quite a while, and when I finally gave in to the upgrade, I couldn’t believe the difference it made in my life. Taking email everywhere was life-changing: I no longer had to wait at home near my laptop when I was expecting or hoping for an important email. What freedom!
Fast-forward half a decade, and I just removed email from my phone.
This wasn’t something I’d planned, wasn’t part of a strategic shift toward living more mindfully. Instead, it happened in an instant, a spur-of-the-moment decision… and yet this small change has had a positive effect on my life.
I was just three days into 10 days off work to celebrate our wedding. Everything was in place to run without me: our project manager was on call and monitoring company emails; our systems were in place so team members could do their best work without waiting for my approval; and my autoresponder was on. I wasn’t even worried about taking off 10 days, because I felt confident my team could do most everything without me.
Yet my personal email needed checking. I had to correspond with vendors for the big day, make plans with relatives who were visiting, and keep tabs on the many photos I was tagged in on Facebook. So even on those “off” days, I was often in my personal inbox.
Guess what stared me in the face whenever I opened my Gmail app? My work email. Even though I went into Gmail for personal email, I would see my work inbox, too.
And it was just begging to be read. Even though I knew my business was covered and running smoothly, I could see how many emails were unread, and I wondered what they were. What opportunities awaited me? What issues needed to be resolved? What wins were my team executing without me?
So I clicked, and I read, and I didn’t turn off the work side of my brain like I’d planned to. I knew time off from work was important for my mental health, and yet I wasn’t turning off.
For the most part, I just peeked at my work email; I didn’t actually respond. But eventually, I couldn’t help myself, and I replied.
Within minutes, I received an email back from my project manager telling me to get the heck off my email and enjoy my wedding week. (Yeah, our project manager is pretty awesome.)
He was right. But habits are hard to break unless you force yourself to make new decisions. So that day, that minute actually, I removed my work email from my phone. Deleted the account from my Gmail app. Said goodbye to corresponding with clients and my team while on the go.
And you know what? It worked. For the rest of the week, I didn’t think about work, and I didn’t touch a single work email. I didn’t really have a choice, since my laptop was out of reach and we were up to our ears in family and friends. It was impossible to check my work email unless I booted up my laptop and took time away from everyone else, which resulted in true mental time away.
Now I’m back to work, but I haven’t put my work email back on my phone. I keep wondering whether I need it. Will my business blow up if I only check email when I’m in front of my laptop? Will I eventually find myself in a situation where I’m out of the house, away from my laptop, and need access to my work email?
So far, not having access to work email on my smartphone is improving my quality of life. (I can still access my personal email.) It’s helping me find a better balance. It’s forcing me to keep work at the office (or at least on my laptop) and focus on other parts of my life when I’m not at work. It’s enabling me to make the conscious choice to spend precious mental energy on email, rather than doing that as my default.
The downside, of course, is not having work email on my phone makes me less productive in some ways. I can’t sort through replies when I’m standing in line at the post office or watch for important messages when I step away from my office at lunch. It means more down time, more thinking time, the kind of time that has become rare since smartphones came into our lives — but that’s also how we make space to do deep work and develop great ideas.
It’s a game of give and take, of pros and cons. Because simplifying — and indeed, this is a form of simplifying — requires making small sacrifices, letting little bad things happen so you can accomplish the big things. (Click to tweet this.)
Here’s an example. My husband and I don’t own a television; we haven’t had one since we moved in together nearly two years ago. I love how this affects our life. We don’t spend our evenings watching reality shows, and instead default to chatting with each other, reading, or browsing the Internet, often side by side on the couch. Our sitting room doesn’t revolve around a television, so visitors relax on couches that face each other instead of a screen. It’s also always relatively quiet in our place, rather than having constant TV noise in the background. All in all, we enjoy living TV-free.
But there are a few instances when we wish we had a TV: to watch sporting events like the Tour de France or the Olympics, to catch up on the evening news, or to throw a Superbowl party. (Superbowl fans don’t really want to watch a live stream from a laptop.) We have to give up those perks to experience the bigger benefits of living without a tube.
A good friend of mine has a similar situation with their stroller-free life. They love that living stroller-free forces them to stay fit by carrying their young child, and means the child has more human interaction — and grows up with a culture of exercise — than if they were constantly pushed around in the stroller. (She conceded this would be more difficult to pull off if you have more than one child.) But to experience all those benefits, she and her husband face a few times each year when they wish they had a stroller.
My point is that there will no doubt be times when I wish I had my work email on my phone. But I’ll have to work through those tough times to enjoy the benefits of this choice.
Does this sound like it might work for you, but you don’t want to commit to it?
Maybe there’s some other habit you’re keen to develop, but going ALL IN just feels a bit too scary?
Here’s my recommendation: Give it a try, knowing you are under no obligation to keep it up. In other words, consider it an experiment.
I did this two years ago, experimenting with turning off all email notifications on my phone — and I’ve continued that since.
This is also a good strategy for revising your novel: simply experiment with killing your darlings, telling yourself you can put them back into the story if it hurts too much. It minimizes your risk, and you’ll probably find those cuts make your manuscript stronger.
Sometimes it just takes knowing you’re allowed to change your mind to get yourself to try something new.
Next on my list for Not Letting Email Rule My Life: Batching email. The strategy intimidates me, but heck, it’s just an experiment, right?