sunday life: how to do an e-tox

Posted on August 23rd, 2009

This week I officially, no false-run-ups-about-it, start my e-tox. To see if banishing email addiction makes life cleaner, more elegant and, straight up, better*.

I had this revelation recently: my relationship with email is not unlike one I once had with a particularly clingy guy. This guy – let’s call him Outlook – constantly demanded to know where I was and why hadn’t I replied to his barrage of messages, and, no, it’s no excuse I was out with friends because I had Blackberry. He expected acknowledgement of all attention-seeking communications, even when there was no dignified answer available (“Um, glad you were just thinking of me”; “Oh, yes, there it is, another smiley emoticon!”). And he’d ping when he walked in the room. Although I think that was more the cumulative sound of my every pore bristling.

As with the bloke, email makes me anxious. It tries to control me. And the truly tragic thing? I’ve grown addicted to the sense of belonging the demanding attention provides. To drag this analogy longer than I probably should, I have battered inbox syndrome. And Dear Miss xx, I want out.

So, step one, on Monday I set up a perky auto-reply that essentially tells email to rack off, while putting the kybosh on my own addictive patterns. If you were to email me today you’d be greeted with this: Hello! Email is wasting my time and creative energy. For the sake of efficiency and wellbeing I now check me emails twice daily only, at 10am and 4pm. It’s urgent? Call me on…

I then turned off incoming mail alerts (I piffed the ping). And stared at my bare desktop saver for a bit, feeling like I’d just pressed Ronald Reagan’s red button.

There are many ways to tame email. Right now, in contemporary cardigan-wearing geek circles, everyone is into email annihilation. That is, wiping one’s entire inbox in one “alt-A delete” swoop and starting again. I know this because I am was an email addict and received daily blog newsletters from said geeks spelling out the gory details. One guy deleted 24,000 unopened emails. He explained 80 per cent were redundant or had sorted themselves out through his inaction (there’s a lesson in that alone); the rest, well, they’d filter back eventually as reminders if important (another lesson).

But this strikes me as a bit like having a colonic only to head out after for a Sizzler buffet. Why purge if you don’t have a plan to stop your bowels blocking again? And if backlog and email influx were the only problem, why do we frantically press the “get mail” button when things go quiet? (Come on, we all do it, no?)

Which brings me back to my “say hello to the hand” auto reply. It works. It’s cut the influx in half. Most queries sort themselves out now when I don’t reply. It force-feeds initiative. I now side-step reply-all conversations – the joke’s over by the time I get to them. The best bit? Everyone is sick of getting my auto-reply, so they send me less mail. I’ve essentially trained the world to join me at my kicking e-tox party.

Importantly, it’s also curbed the circular addiction. Mostly because if I reply at any other time than 10am or 4pm everyone will think I’m a flaccid idiot.

In addition I’ve also: unsubscribed to all e-newsletters and reinstated the ones I actually read as feeds on my homepage (which I go to once a day); I only answer emails that ask a specific question (and am thinking about adding this fact to my auto-reply by way of apology); and I respond to friends on Facebook and Twitter (and not so much on email). Doesn’t that just plonk the fetid issue from one slop-bucket to another? No. Facebook and Twitter haven’t developed the same demanding culture of reply expectation (yet). And I only have to respond to people I invite to be in communication with; on email every one and his shiatsu can demand a piece of you. Also, the communications are short which trains everyone to get to the point. Or to call me if it’s important. Which is how things should be. I’ve been speaking to more people this week and found chatting encourages care and mindful attention.

If I’m honest, I’m feeling a little smug about being Someone Who Has Left the Fray. Only a year or so ago, there was status attached to being bogged down in technology. People “inbox bragged”; lots of email demonstrated how important you were. But in these less material times, this seems crass. I feel the new status symbol is to walk away from connectivity and to have interesting, soul-elevating hobbies and interactions. And to live with a dignified “knowing” that the universe will sort itself out as it needs to; you don’t need to meddle so much. New York Times social media commentator Virginia Heffernan wrote recently “connectivity is poverty” and that the rich (in wallet and spirit) turn their technologies off. Hoorah to that.

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