In early December, I didn’t check email (work or personal) for a full week. I wasn’t on vacation (I wish), and I was still able to do my job (really). It was an eye-opening experience that managed to be at times fun, lonely, frustrating, and liberating. When the seven days were over, and I once again logged-in to Gmail and scrolled through hundreds of emails, I was slightly surprised by how little I had missed. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the very beginning.
I used to love getting emails. Not to totally date myself, but I remember the thrill of the AOL lady announcing “You’ve got mail” whenever I logged into my account. For so many years, scrolling through my email wasn’t a chore — it was a joy. And email was a huge part of my courtship with my husband, Ken. Every morning, he would send me an email with a funny subject line and a sweet sign off. A search through my Yahoo inbox reveals more than 10,000 emails from Ken over the last 12 years. But it’s been a few years since we were so dedicated to writing emails every day. I miss it, but I understand why we’ve moved away from the ritual.
In fact, these days I pretty much hate email. (I'm not the only one.) Yet, I’m still totally addicted to checking my inbox dozens (hundreds?) of times a day. I check it first thing when I wake up in the morning. Really: FIRST THING. I turn off the alarm, roll over, grab my phone, and check to see what emails might have come in overnight. And let’s be real, I am not so important that people are trying to get in touch with me at 3 a.m., but that doesn’t stop me from checking. I’m not proud of it. Even though I check my email all the time, I am always behind in my correspondence because I get hundreds of emails a day, and most of them don’t have funny subject lines and sweet sign offs. Most aren’t even from people I know. I can’t help but wonder if there’s a better use of my time.
So when my editor sent me a link to The New York Times story “Addicted to Distraction” by Tony Schwartz, I could totally relate to the writer’s restlessness and inability to focus on anything for long periods of time. I’ve become a terrible reader in recent years, since I’ll stop every few paragraphs to check my email. I do the same thing when I watch TV. But what stood out the most was the stat Schwartz noted: The average white-collar worker spends six hours per day checking email.
I was shocked. And then, on second thought, I wasn’t surprised at all.
Let’s put that stat into perspective: The average worker puts in 46.7 hours per week according to the 2014 Gallup poll. If they spend 30 hours on email each week, that leaves 16.7 hours to get the rest of their work done. No wonder so few of us still work 9-to-5 jobs. All this email seems to be making our days longer.
After reading the article, I might have jokingly suggested I should do an experiment where I give up email for a week to see what happens. I didn’t think my editor would think it was a good idea. But when she came back with a “Yeah, you should do that,” my stomach flip-flopped. I was intrigued and nervous. Could I really take a week off from checking email? Would my world stop?
I told Ken about the no email idea during dinner that night. He was immediately against it. Ken might no longer send me daily emails, but he’s a writer, and he frequently sends me drafts of his stories to read. And, like most couples, we communicate on Gchat throughout the day. It’s not the most thrilling of conversations — mostly centered around what to have for dinner, who’s going to the grocery store, and what time I’m leaving the office. Since we both typically work 10-plus-hour days, it is nice to be able to communicate with him so easily, and I was a little worried about missing him if I didn’t have access to Gmail.
But missing Ken wasn’t going to stop me from trying the experiment. I did a little prep: I learned my voicemail password and set up an away message. I told my boss’s bosses what was up. And I emailed a few people to give them a heads up. I bookmarked my Google calendar for easy access. (Forget email — I can’t live without my calendar.) And then, on Sunday, December 6, I woke up early and frantically began checking and sending emails before I was supposed to meet my friend for a run. I managed to get my inbox to zero. I set up an elaborate out-of-office auto-responder explaining the experiment, and sharing my office and cell phone numbers in case people needed to get in touch with me.
Then I took a deep breath, took Gmail off my phone, and went for a run.
It was so liberating that Sunday to be without email. I went shopping with my dad and didn’t pull out my phone once (he wasn’t so disciplined). I had a nice quiet evening with Ken and didn’t really think about work. I could really get into this whole no email thing — especially on the weekends.
But Monday morning, when the alarm went off, I instinctively rolled over to check my email. I was less than 24 hours into the no email experiment, and I was already missing my morning ritual. I watched TV, sipped some coffee, chatted with my mom, and agonized over what to wear. Everything was normal, except I wasn’t pausing every 10 minutes to refresh Gmail. I listened to a podcast as I walked to the subway. And it was super weird not to stop to check my email to make sure there was nothing pressing before I descended into the depths of the 2/3 station for the 30-minute ride into the city. I brought a book to read because I wasn’t going to use my commute to sift through the emails that came in overnight. My daily subway ride is one of my most productive times for dealing with emails. It felt sort of indulgent to read a book instead of working on my way into the office.
It was better when I got to Refinery29. I had big plans for the week: I was going to spend all my extra time — 30 extra hours!! — writing and editing. Also, I packed the week with meetings. If I wasn’t spending six hours a day checking emails, I would have more time for face-to-face interaction. (That worked out for the most part, except when one of my meetings never showed up.) For the most part it was great. It freed up more of my workday so I could do many of those things I never have enough time for. But a couple of times, I had to kinda, sorta cheat in order to get that work done. I had a meeting on Tuesday with our editor-in-chief, Christene Barberich, where she asked me to gather some data on women and boards. I wasn’t going to say no, but how was I going to get her the research? So I shared a Google doc with her — that was written like an email. It was nerve-wracking not being totally sure she got the doc, but I was committed to the experiment.
Tuesday evening, I went to a PR event. In the cab on the way there, I chatted with a coworker via Slack and answered a question about a story I was writing via Asana. I was still addicted to working on my phone even without Gmail. I didn’t know anyone at the event, and I was really missing being able to pull out my phone and scroll through email, instead of standing around being lonely. I couldn’t find my PR contact, and I didn’t have her number to text her, so I sucked it up and chatted with a random stranger. One glass of wine later, I blew that pop stand and grabbed a cab home.
Sitting in the back of the taxi, I was hit by an overwhelming wave of sadness. I just wanted to check my email. I texted my editor. She texted back: STAY STRONG. The cab crawled in the holiday traffic. I made the driver let me out, and took the subway the rest of the way home. There was no reason to stay in a slow taxi when I couldn’t use the time to check and write emails. I put my phone away and read a book. I was not going to give up on Tuesday.
Wednesday morning I woke up, and I didn’t roll over and look at my phone. Had I finally broken the habit? After Tuesday’s sorrow, I was recommitted. It was just four more days. I wasn’t so addicted that I couldn’t make it the full week. Instead, I was annoyed when my editor suggested I could quit early. I WAS STAYING STRONG.
And so the week went on. I wrote and edited and went to meetings. I chatted with coworkers in real life and texted with Ken. A few publicists called me, and we chatted about their pitches. In one case, the whole call took two minutes for what might have been several rounds of emailing. Several times a day, my coworkers would ask me how it was going — good, bad, frantic? For the most part, they were supportive — some even said they were jealous. One editor was very frank that my experiment was causing her anxiety. But no one really complained that they couldn’t reach me by email, until Thursday.
I tried to answer a ton of emails before the experiment began, but a few got lost in the last-minute rush, including an email to NBC to set up an interview with Hoda Kotb. Refinery29’s publicist had been helping me coordinate the interview, and she wasn’t too happy to hear from our NBC contact that I hadn’t been in touch, and I wasn’t checking email. When she came and found me on Thursday afternoon to tell me about the email, she said, "So, you’re really sticking with this experiment, huh?” I felt terrible. I didn’t mean to create more work for her, and I hadn’t meant to drop the ball. I put some notes into a Google doc for her, so she could send it on to NBC. In the end it was okay — we got the interview and our contact was understanding — but I still felt bad. My no email experiment wasn’t supposed to negative impact someone else, but suddenly it was.
After that exchange, the novelty of the experiment began to wear off, and I started feeling grumpy. I was tired of talking about the experiment. Ken had an event every night that week, so I hadn’t had much time to talk with him, beyond a few scattered text messages. I was over asking my editor to send emails for me — and I was worried she was annoyed at helping me out. I couldn’t help but feel like I was missing out on stuff. And I was — because more than once someone would start talking with me about something, and I would have no idea what they were talking about because I didn’t get the email!
As the week came to an end, I was all out of sorts. I hadn’t gotten as much work done as I wanted (granted my to-do list was ridiculous), and I was over the experiment. Friday night I even dreamed about checking email. Really. But I had one more day to go. I could power through.
Saturday was wonderful. Ken and I had spent the whole day together. We went Christmas shopping, saw a movie, and enjoyed an afternoon beer. And it was great to not pull out my phone every 10 minutes to check in at work. Walking over to the bar, we ran into a coworker who wanted to guess how many unread emails I would have Sunday morning. She guessed 3,000. I threw out a more conservative estimate, 1,300. It was only a few more hours until I would find out. After a nice Saturday of no emailing, I wasn’t sure I was ready to start checking again.
Some people might have been jealous of the no email experiment, but no one envied me on Sunday, December 13, when I finally logged in to see how many unanswered emails I needed to contend with. Checking Gmail seven days after I first set up that autoresponder, I had around 1,400 emails to read. I had almost hit the number right on the nose. That’s right: I get an average of 200 emails a day. That’s 25 an hour over an eight-hour workday. No wonder I was feeling so overwhelmed. My inbox updates nearly every other minute with something distracting to read.
I scrolled through my inbox super quick to see if there was anything important I needed to read right away. And I wasn’t all that surprised to see that I hadn’t really missed anything. Seven days, no checking email, and the only thing I wish I saw was an invite to someone’s going away party. But that was it. Everything else had been handled, via Slack or Asana, or phone or in person. There were no crises. I hadn’t won any prizes or missed a chance to interview Hillary Clinton. I could live my life and do my job without email.
Before I even tackled those 1,400 messages, I started setting up filters on my inbox. I never used tabs before, but while weeding through all the junk, I thought: There has to be a better way. I don’t need to read every single outdated newsletter and news alert about Gwen and Blake’s blossoming relationship. Once I created the categories, Google did the sorting. And in the end, I had only around 300 emails from real people that needed to be answered.
I’m not entirely sure what the takeaway is here. I still hate email. I still struggle every single day to read and answer every one that lands in my inbox. I probably still have not responded to the one you sent me last week. And I still wish I wasn’t so addicted to checking email first thing when I wake up. Yet, I don’t really want to live without it. It does make me feel connected to the world. I wouldn’t give it up again (except on vacation — I am a big fan of the no email vacation).
I guess I would sum up the whole experience with a quote from my mom, which is something we say when we joke about the people in our lives who cause us grief, even though we love them so. Email: You can’t live with it, and you can’t live with it.