Kill Your Email Addiction: Put Your Inbox In The 'Upstairs Bathroom'

Your email inbox is a massive distraction, particularly when it's constantly by your side. That's why, for example, we recommend turning off push notifications if at all possible. Similarly, Unix guru Jesse Storimer explains why he keeps his inbox in the upstairs bathroom -- figuratively speaking.

Title image remixed from Helder Almeida (Shutterstock).

My house has two bathrooms.

One is upstairs and one is downstairs. In order to understand the story you need to know that the bedroom and main bathroom are upstairs. Downstairs is just a half bath, as they say. I work from home and spend most of my day downstairs. When I have to use the bathroom, I use the downstairs one; no surprise there.

A few weeks ago a peculiar thing happened: my wife took our toothbrushes, which usually reside in the upstairs bathroom, and put them in the downstairs bathroom. I can usually manage to brush my teeth twice a day: once in the morning after I get up and once at night before I go to bed. I'd really like to brush my teeth after every meal. I'm currently eating tons of fresh fruit and vegetables which really takes its toll on teeth, so I really should be brushing several times per day.

Alas, when the toothbrush is upstairs it's out of sight and out of mind. As such, I rarely venture upstairs in the middle of the day simply to brush my teeth and return downstairs.

However, when my toothbrush was brought downstairs I found myself brushing my teeth far more often. I was reminded of its presence every time I went to the bathroom and found it far easier to take an extra few minutes to brush my teeth several times per day.

So going forward I'm going to keep my toothbrush in the downstairs bathroom. My email inbox, however, will be moved to the upstairs bathroom.

For the longest time I kept my inbox in the downstairs bathroom. I'll stop mincing words and say that I checked my inbox too often. Why is this a problem? Checking email is a really great way for me to break my concentration, reduce my motivation, and totally switch contexts.

So why was I checking so often? There are certainly psychological factors, wanting to respond quickly to coworkers, procrastination, but one of the biggest factors was that checking my inbox was just too plain easy.

I was using a nice GUI email client. It wanted to send me growl notifications whenever I got a new message and show me how many unread messages I had on its Dock icon. Needless to say, I turned off these features. However, this made no difference; it was still too easy to check. Anytime I was programming I could quickly press Cmd-Tab and just have a peek at my inbox. This quickly became a reflex action. I was checking my inbox every minute or so as I waited for a test run. It was literally optimised down to a sub-second operation.

So how did I remedy this? I now read my email using mutt(1).

Ed. note: Mutt is a command-line email tool that we've explained how to set up and use in the past. Mutt may be a little more of a challenge than some of us are willing to take on, but the sentiment still applies.

There are a few things that make this better. The main thing is when I want to check my inbox I perform the following steps:

  • Open a new terminal session.
  • Launch mutt.
  • Watch in detail as mutt makes the initial connection, authenticates, and pulls down new messages.
  • Read email.
  • Close mutt.

I've found this technique very effective in clobbering my addiction to checking my inbox. Why is it so effective? My mail is never just sitting there waiting for me. If I want to check my inbox it takes about 15 seconds of my time from having the idea to seeing my new mail. Believe it or not, this is often enough to prevent me from even getting started with checking my inbox. A sub-second operation became a 15-second operation.

My email inbox used to be even closer than the downstairs bathroom. It was akin to keeping my toothbrush proppped up on my shoulder in case I felt like I had an extra few seconds to brush my teeth. Now my inbox is at a safe distance. About 15 seconds away. About the same distance as my upstairs bathroom.

Put Your Inbox in the Upstairs Bathroom [Jesse Storimer]

Jesse Storimer is the author of Working With Unix Processes. You can follow him on Twitter as @jstorimer.


Comments

    instead of self control in regards to regulating your email use why not switch to snail mail or cut off both of your index fingers and thumbs? sounds silly? only about as much as this article.

      That's a really, really unhelpful comment. The point here is that if you find it difficult to muster the willpower not to be distracted by constant access to email, you can help yourself stay focused by introducing a small time/effort barrier between you and checking your email. Simple and insightful. If you don't have the willpower problem, maybe consider others who do - for whom this will be useful.

    I am more worried about the safety of your toothbrushes in the vicinity of the downstairs bathroom if the toilet is in the same room. You are aware of the contamination field?

    I'd prefer an email diet, personally (unsubscribe from stuff you don't read, filter out email into labels for later reading etc.), but I can see how a delay in loading your email is a good thing. If there was a 30 second delay between wanting to visit Lifehacker and actually visiting Lifehacker, I'd forget about wanting to go there, and would carry on like normal.

    Also as a side-rant, I know some article titles are misleading or the information not relevant to you or in some cases, wrong, but people should stop badmouthing the articles or the authors. I found this article made me think about how many emails I get, and how I can apply a similar technique to reduce "information overload"

    What a way to overthink a non-problem. Here's a hint, close the regular mail app down. *gasp* It's no longer a distraction!

      But email can be an addiction or a quick and easy distraction. You wouldn't tell a smoker "Don't open your pack to grab a cigarette. Done! Addiction kicked" would you?

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