Instead of just willing ourselves not to check our phones, social media, and email so often, we need to configure our online time so that we are less tempted to check compulsively. The goal is to check email, social media, and messages just a few times a day—intentionally, not impulsively. Our devices are thus returned to their status as tools we use strategically — not slot machines that randomly demand our energy and attention.
I counsel my clients to check email first thing in the morning and in the late afternoon—and that’s it. Here is the key: During those times, you’ll need to block out enough time to get through new emails, and, if possible, all the way to the bottom of your inbox. If a particular email is going to take more than 5 minutes to read and respond to, put it in a folder (“to do this week”) and add whatever it entails to a task list. If you need X hours a day to deal with your email, make sure you’ve scheduled X hours daily. On your calendar. For real.
I check my email quickly before I begin my most important work so that I can delete or unsubscribe from junk and respond to anything urgent. I respond to everything else in my email in the late afternoon.
I actually block this time out on my calendar as a recurring appointment, and then move it around as necessary to make room for other meetings — that way I check strategically, not impulsively. I occasionally look at (and maybe post to) social media once in the afternoon, if I have time, and then I close it for the day. I respond to most texts at lunch, and voicemails once mid-morning and once mid-afternoon (between calls and meetings).
Starting Small Works
Feeling panicky at the prospect of detoxing from your email and messages so drastically? Start with very small chunks of time, or very limited spaces. Commit to unplug for just twenty minutes—at dinner, for example—or to just leave your device out of your children’s room, or do not check email before you are actually out of bed one morning per week. Often we need to give our nervous system time to adjust; we need to have the experience that our heart does not actually stop beating—or that a crisis has not erupted at work—in the few minutes that we’ve turned off our phone. (In fact, we enjoyed it! We were more efficient and less stressed!) The idea is to build internal fortitude through positive experience slowly rather than trying to massively make over our lives in one fell swoop.
This is a recommended practice from a series about gaining control of your time, attention and energy in my online course, Science of Finding Flow. Learn more about this activity by checking out Unit 3, Detox, here.