Several weeks ago I decided to try a simple experiment. I opted to check email and social media accounts only three times in a week. I wanted to see what effect this less frequent, non-daily checking would have on my productivity and social connections.
Many years ago when the web was a lot smaller and email was less popular, this would have been no big deal. In the mid 1990s I could get away with checking email a few times a week, even in business. People often didn’t expect a fast turnaround via email. If they needed a fast response, they’d use the phone.
Today it’s become common, especially in the world of small business, to check email and/or social media several times per day at least. In some situations this seems justifiable. More frequent checking means faster turnaround for clients. Speed is classy, especially for customer service. Faster response times can give a business a competitive advantage.
But this frequent checking doesn’t come for free. If you’re the one doing all of this checking, some of the drawbacks include:
- reduced ability to focus
- becoming urgency driven and losing sight of what’s important
- dealing with frequent distractions
- constantly having the thoughts of others floating through your mind
- becoming addicted and checking excessively, often without conscious thought
- reduced productivity
- diminished in-person social life
- losing the ability to properly prioritize messages
- spending more time on messages than is reasonable
- weakening the connection to your own personal goals
- wasting time that’s better spent elsewhere
Here are some of the key benefits I experienced with less frequent checking of online accounts:
- I found it easier to maintain focus on my own goals and projects
- I got more done, having some of my most productive weeks in years
- I enjoyed a greater sense of time abundance, like I had more space in each day to work, live, and play
- I lost the desire to post status updates just for the sake of posting something
- I experienced a significant drop in how important email and social media felt to me; they receded into the background of my life
- I spent less time thinking about email and social media each day
- I went to bed at a more consistent time (no late night communication) and had an easy time getting up at 5am seven days a week
- I posted fewer status updates and answered fewer emails and private messages
- I received significantly fewer replies and comments (I gave people less to reply to, so less for me to read)
- I found it easier to prioritize messages intelligently by seeing them in the context of a few days’ worth of messages
- I saved several hours per week that I was able to spend on more rewarding and productive tasks
- I exercised more frequently (5-7 days per week)
- I felt more relaxed and less stressed but also more motivated
- I completed some projects with nary a status update about them (does anyone care that I had a new water heater installed this month?)
- The mental and emotional itch to do frequent checks at random times has faded significantly
- I became less aware of what my online friends were doing and more aware of what I was doing
- I enjoyed the time I spent with my kids more and felt more engaged with them
Here are the negative consequences I experienced:
- I missed a timely email invite to play disc golf (my regular group plays on Saturdays, but this was an extra invite for a game on Sunday)
Seriously that’s the only negative consequence that comes to mind — not exactly an apocalypse.
There have been some adaptations to make as well, but I wouldn’t call them negative consequences. If someone wants to schedule a phone or Skype call with me or an in-person meet-up, I just have to schedule it further in advance to allow enough time for the back-and-forth messages to agree to a time.
I may miss out on some time-sensitive invitations. Those “Hey, guess what! I’m in Vegas tonight. Let’s meet up!” messages may go unseen until the window has passed. But that isn’t a huge deal relative to the benefits.
Time of Day
I found that the best time of day for me to handle email is in the evening. I found that when I checked it early in the day, I was tempted to check it again a few hours later. But when I checked around 5-8pm, that worked very well.
First, this keeps my daytimes free to focus on other items. Second, there’s no incentive to spend excessive time on messages as a way of procrastinating because by then I’ve already done my work for the day if it’s a workday. Third, I feel more relaxed when answering personal messages since it’s not going to push back any daytime activities; it might simply mean eating dinner a little later.
I think my favorite pattern is to check email on Sundays, Thursdays, and Fridays. This gives me a solid four-day (96-hour) block to get some real work done at the start of each week since I can go through Mon, Tue, Wed, and Thu without doing email or social media till Thursday evening.
What if someone emails me on Monday and doesn’t get a reply till Thursday evening? My business isn’t so urgency driven that this would likely be a problem. The people who may need to get in touch with me more urgently can call or text me. I told such people about this experiment when it began, so they know what to expect. This is working out just fine so far. In fact, some people have been curious about it and are reconsidering their own online habits as a result.
At first that stretch of going for four days without checking email seemed a bit much, but now I like it. It’s nice to have this abundance of offline time to get my work done and live my life without worrying about what’s happening online. I always know I can catch up later.
My goal was to break the pattern of excessive checking and replace it with something more productive and sensible, not to replace it with something impractically rigid. If I feel it’s warranted due to particular circumstances, I can always add an extra check.
Suppose you sign up for a new online service and need to click a verification link in an email, which means you have to bring up your email to do this. Do you give yourself permission to check email to click that verification link and not handle anything else? Do you click the link and process whatever email is there too? Or do you just decide it’s best to finish the opt-in process during your next scheduled email check?
These kinds of decisions can be made on a case by case basis initially, and then if you notice any patterns happening there, you can come up with a more general and consistent way of handling them. A stray check now or then won’t hurt your productivity once your new patterns are well established. However, a stray check can hurt your ability to get the new pattern conditioned during those vulnerable first 2-3 weeks.
Here’s a summary of the key lessons I learned from this experiment:
- Processing online communication more frequently makes it seem more important with respect to your other goals, projects, and desires, and this can lead to an unbalanced prioritization of how you spend your time, not to mention addictive behavior. And conversely, checking less frequently makes such communication appear much less significant and can also break a prior addiction.
- The more often you reply to messages or post status updates, the more replies and comments you’ll receive, which means more reading and potentially more replying (and then more replies to your replies, and so on). The less often you check messages or post status updates, the fewer responses you’ll receive, which means less reading and less replying for you; this can save you hours per week.
- If sound time management practices are important to you, it’s wise to rationally decide in advance when and how often you actually need to check messages. Then stick to your schedule. If you find yourself triggered to check in more frequently, it’s likely that the old habits are still too strongly ingrained, so you’re going to need to weaken those neural pathways first by checking in significantly less often for a while (4x per week or less). Otherwise you’re going to waste a lot of mental energy exerting your willpower NOT to check in so often.
Keep in mind that good habits run on autopilot and do not require serious willpower to maintain. Neurologically speaking, self-discipline is a limited resource. If you have to exercise your self-discipline every day to get yourself not to do what you’re tempted to do, you’re burning up this resource unnecessarily, and then it won’t be available for other areas where you need it. Your brain can only handle so much self-discipline (and its limits are normally quite low), so use your discipline to establish sensible habits that can be self-maintaining after the first 2-3 weeks. Sometimes this requires distancing yourself from the old habits for a few weeks to give them a chance to fade.
Checking email three times per week feels about right, and the short-term results have been promising. Twice a week could work too (probably Thursday and Sunday). Once a week would mean longer delays for certain things, like scheduling phone calls, so I think 2-3x per week should be about right.
What about checking on your cell phone while you’re out, such as in those spaces of extra time while waiting in line? I found this to be a bad idea in general. While it seems efficient at first glance, it also strengthens poor habits, like constantly thinking about what’s going on online. I find it more sensible to read a few extra pages of an ebook or to think about my own goals or some upcoming decisions to make.
How often you check in is your choice. Even if you have a job that requires frequent checking, you chose that job, and you’re free to quit if the job is conditioning bad habits. If you think frequent checking is expected of you at work, you can renegotiate those expectations and encourage people to use other communication channels for urgent messages. Or you can set up one email account for urgent communication that you check often, and use another account for non-urgent messages that you check less often.
If you’re currently in a pattern of checking email multiple times per day, I’d encourage you to test a non-daily schedule to see what it’s like. Try going every other day (and just once on those days, preferably in the evening) to see what it’s like. It may be tough at first, but you’ll get used to it. If you do that, it’s going to rewire your thinking and allow some of your other goals to rise in priority.
This type of experiment is also a good use of a 30-day trial.
When was the last time you went 72 hours (3 days) without checking any email or social media? If you suspect it’s been a year or more, or only due to extreme circumstances like an illness, I challenge you to attempt this. Make email and social media wait for your goals.