Eliminate gratuitous visits to your inbox, free up your time and headspace.
The alarm rings. You roll over to the side, eyes still crusty with sleep. Half remembered dream images flicker over your retinas— your central nervous system recalibrates itself like an astronaut on her first wobbly steps on terra firma, and before you know how or why, your phone is in your hand and you’re staring at your inbox.
Tap, swipe, rinse and repeat.
You start wading through promotional messages, automatic notifications, reminders from your dentist and forwards from grandma, and before you notice a whole chunk of time is gone, down the drain, ne’er to return.
Tap, swipe, rinse and repeat.
According to a recent survey of white-collar workers in the US this is how a quarter of people start their day.
We check our emails before we go to work, while talking on the phone, in subways, airplanes and cars, while watching TV, even in the bathroom; it would be so much easier to say where and when we don’t check our emails.
The same survey found that the average person checks their personal emails for an average of 2.5 hours every day, and on top of that another 3.1 hours for their work-emails. That’s 5.6 hours every day, just for email!
Let’s do the math here for a second.
5.6 hours every day amounts to 39.2 hours per week (1.6 days), 168 hours (7 whole days) per month, 2044 hours (12.16 weeks) per year of nothing but staring at your inbox. Oh joy!
But no matter how many hours exactly we spend in our inboxes, the fact is that all these micro moments of quickly checking your mail while waiting for that Uber (Tap), before the food arrives (Swipe), in a dull meeting (Rinse) and waiting for the elevator (Repeat), they all add up.
And that’s just for email. Add on top all the times of checking your Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and the other usual suspects and we’re talking about some serious impact to our time and perhaps even more importantly, our focus.
Because each time you stop what you’re doing to whip out your phone and glance at its notifications, your brain is conditioned to get a dopamine hit.
Trevor Haynes, research technician at Department of Neurobiology, Harvard Medical School puts it like this:
“Smartphones have provided us with a virtually unlimited supply of social stimuli, both positive and negative. Every notification, whether it’s a text message, a “like” on Instagram, or a Facebook notification, has the potential to be a positive social stimulus and dopamine influx.”
It’s this addictive potential that makes us check our phone so often in the first place. And it can be very distracting when you’re trying to do a task that requires deep and prolonged focus such as reading a book or studying.
“It won’t hurt to quickly check my emails”, our brain says. But what if it does? What if each time we refresh our inbox we’re tilting the balance of our neurochemistry towards short-term rewards and immediate gratification?
It’s like microdosing cocaine, a thousand times per day.
Dr Joseph Firth, Senior Research Fellow at NICM Health Research Institute, Western Sydney University warns:
“the limitless stream of prompts and notifications from the Internet encourages us towards constantly holding a divided attention — which then in turn may decrease our capacity for maintaining concentration on a single task”
Reclaim Your Headspace
I’m aware that “dopamine fasting” is all the rage recently in Silicon Valley, but even if you can get away from it all for a few days, at some point you still have to return to your feeds, notifications and inbox.
So instead of trying to flee the onslaught of stimuli, only to be binging even harder after that overpriced “digital detox” how about we learn to manage them better on a daily basis?
Because let’s face it, the Internet isn’t going anywhere. To be a functioning member of society you need a phone, an email account, etc. We can’t just burn it all and prance with abandon into some Luddite Eldorado.
This is our life now. And we better get in control of it lest it controls us.
1. Reel In The Impulse
As a first step we have to break the cycle of chemical conditioning. You know that tingling sensation when you look at your phone, wondering if you have new email, favs, hearts, likes, etc. — it‘s not your friend.
But after years of conditioning breaking the habit may be harder than expected. So instead of battling the impulse head on, try the following:
1. Schedule Your Inbox Time
Set a fixed amount of times during which you check your email, e.g. 3 times per day: in the morning, in the afternoon, and before dinner.
Many people might be shocked by the mere suggestion and say: “How will I be able to get any work done like that? People expect me to reply!”
But if you’re really honest, how many emails do you get that require immediate action, that can’t wait a few hours? Probably not that many. And we can easily set some exceptions for those.
2. Do Email in Batches
After having scheduled your email checking, once it’s “inbox time”, you’ll probably have a number of mails sitting there. Now take care of all of them in one fell swoop:
- respond to everything you can respond to
- archive and sort away everything that’s done
Sure this will take some time, perhaps 30–60 minutes, depending on your workload and mail traffic, but guess what: if you do such a session three times per day it’s still less time than checking your email a gazillion times per day and wasting precious hours and focus.
As a bonus, it’s also much easier to reach and maintain inbox zero this way.
2. Manage Your Notifications
Mere scheduling will not be sufficient however when your phone is buzzing and pinging every few seconds, clamoring for attention with enticing notifications, unread badges and whatnot.
Turn it off. All of it.
So much of our email load isn’t even real content. It’s just transactional:
- opt-in confirmations
- password reset prompts
- shipping notifications
And beyond that, how much of it is purely promotional? Spammy newsletters, “super sales”, donation reminders, etc.?
So instead of getting notifications for everything by default, here’s my suggestion. Turn off notifications by default. And then, turn them on one by one, only for these absolutely high-priority subjects or senders.
It’s like with phone calls. You don’t answer any random old unknown number, especially not if you’re busy. But you might if you knew it’s important. Do the same with your email. Screen them. Give priority to only a handful of people (your boss, spouse, etc.) and leave the rest for the scheduled inbox time.
3. Add Social Media To The Mix
All of the above won’t help you if you still keep getting interrupted by Facebook notifications and Twitter alerts every few minutes.
Consider turning off some or all notifications for these as well, depending on your volume, and perhaps regularly check those together with your email at specified intervals.
If that’s too much effort, at least set your phone to “do not disturb” for periods of serious work.
I’ve been experimenting with the strategies outlined above for the past few weeks and I feel as if not only do I suddenly have much more time, I’m much more productive as well.
Don’t just take my word for it. Try it yourself.