Why I Deleted Email From My Phone

With email one tap away on your smartphone, it's easy to mindlessly check and recheck your inbox. Harj Taggar, a partner at startup incubator Y Combinator, found his email habit was doing more harm than good. One small change led to many greater changes.

Image remixed from psdGraphics. Six months ago, I deleted email from my phone by unlinking my Gmail account from the iPhone Mail app. Technically I could still check my email using Safari, but I use 1Password to manage my passwords and the experience on mobile requires several fairly time consuming steps to retrieve a password and log in. It's certainly enough friction to break the urge to log in and check email while, say, walking or during a conversation.


I did this out of curiosity around two questions: could I actually do it given how addicted to checking my email I was? And what consequences would it have in my daily life? The first is easily answered. It's been six months and I still don't have easy access to email on my phone. The adjustment process was surprisingly difficult though. During the first few days, I was somewhat shocked by how anxious it made me not being able to constantly check my email. I was irritable and frustrated, and I became aware of just how habitual it had become to open the Mail app every spare second I had. Gradually, this feeling passed and was replaced by a feeling of liberation.


The consequences have been interesting. Mostly obviously, I've become much slower at replying to email. The downside to this was significantly reduced by a change we made at Y Combinator earlier this year. We created a shared email address that all partners are on. Founders can ping when they need help, especially if the matter is time sensitive. If I happen to be away from my computer for a few hours, it's likely someone else will see the email and reply. If it's something truly urgent that only I can help with, the other partners have my cell number and can call/text me.

The least obvious consequence has been the lengthening of my concentration span, even when I'm at my desk with easy access to my email. I've long realised that email is the biggest killer of my productivity (e.g. if I was trying to code, I never stopped to play video games but I did stop to check my email because I could justify it as work). But once I rid myself of the habit of checking email on my phone constantly, suddenly I had less of a habitual urge to check my email in general. It feels wonderful.

Another consequence has been my perception of time. Over the past six months, the days have actually started feeling longer to me. If I'm walking from one place to another I actually have time to look around, observe my surroundings (which is actually a great source of cheeriness when you live in Palo Alto), and most importantly, to think. It only takes a few of these moments to stop the day from feeling like it has whizzed by in a blur.

Having time to think is precious to me and it's also incredibly important if you want to achieve anything close to original thought. William Deresiewicz articulates this well in his lecture Solitude and Leadership:

"I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else's; it's always what I've already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It's only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea."

Smartphones make it harder than ever to actually stick with your thoughts and keep working on them until they've been polished into something interesting. Joe Kraus talks about this in his talk on what he calls "SlowTech."

Once I realised the power of this, I went on to delete more than just email. Facebook, Twitter and Quora apps have all been removed (for me, Twitter has been the one I've missed the most). It's been the best decision I've made this year and would highly recommend it.

No Email [Planet Krypton]

Harj Taggar is a partner at Y Combinator. Read his blog here and follow him on Twitter @Harjeet.


    I've always been a fan of having a phone for voice calls, and a tablet/ smartphone/ blackberry for everything else (depending on where I was working). Yes it means carrying two devices, but one of those devices can be a small, cheap Nokia or something that fits into any pocket with my keys and a wallet, and the other can be brought or left as I choose. Going to the park with the kids? Just a phone. Going to a work meeting? I'll bring both. Out for dinner - I choose to be sociable. On the train - I choose headphones and zoning out.
    My phone deliberately doesn't have data, music, or games, or anything - it's just for calls and the occasinal text.

    I've recently removed mail accounts and social network notifications from my phone and it's been great. Once you realise that these services don't really do anything for you, the adjustment process becomes easy enough.

    After several years of only having one phone for both work and personal, I've split them again now. My work/life balance is much improved. And on them both, email accounts are set for manual sync only. It's made a big change for me. If I feel the need to check my mails, it's only a button press away, but I'm not bombarded with meaningless mails. And, because I'm only doing mails at times when I choose to, I don't fire off hurried, regrettable responses.
    I take the view that email is an asynchronous communication form - if someone wants an immediate response from me they should consider calling me.

    I just use this thing called self control. Seems to work for me.

      Oh, that's funny, because I use this tactic whereby I post completely self satisfied, patronising comments that are not actually helpful to anyone. But it sure helps me feel superior! Does your tactic work a bit like that?

        Umm so I agree with Max, that is the first thought that came to my mind too. Erin, the first trout that came to my miind when reading your comment was it describes your post more than anything

    Ok, so obviously the first thought that came to my mind was actually about fish but after that I had a second thought that I tried to relay in the post above

    I decided that I don't need to know my emails away from my desk but I still have the option of turning it on if something is up.
    What I would like is the option of updating my emails twice a day just like real mail.
    Indeed some companies enforce that policy.
    There used to be a setting in Outlook in dial-up times which limited how often it checked mail but that's gone with ADSL.
    There is this push setting on the iphone but I'm not sure if it has any effect on exchange settings.

    I don't understand why you would be always checking for new email? My smartphone is configured to check for new mail every 15 minutes, and when mail arrives, a notification sound plays, similar to receiving an sms...therefore eliminating the need to constantly check the phone.

    But also, you could configure gmail filters and labels and only have certain emails trigger a notification, hence cutting down on interruptions to your working day.

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