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]