How to stop checking your email, messengers, and social networks

If you’re reading this article, you may be suffering from the same thing that I endured for a long time: an addiction to constantly checking your smartphone, email, messengers, social networks, corporate task managers, and whatever else.

When I say “addiction,” I’m not exaggerating one bit. I think that this is a really serious problem we face right now. I’ve made major progress recently in the struggle with this addiction, although I haven’t quite conquered it yet.

I’d like to share my experiences with you.

Why is it a bad thing?

For starters, let’s figure out the reasons why it is a bad thing to check email, instant messengers, and social networks constantly.

Multitasking. Most people send responses in instant messengers and email while they are doing something else at the same time. A lot of articles have been written about the fact that multitasking is incompatible with productivity, and everyone supposedly caught on to this a long time ago. Yet we all keep trying to multitask anyway. We tell ourselves that a quick response to a message doesn’t count as switching tasks. But try turning off your phone, closing all the apps on your computer and not checking your email — your productivity will skyrocket.

Living reactively. The difference between reactive and proactive approaches is a well-known topic. When you are reactive, you react to external factors, respond to incoming requests, and refresh your Facebook feed. When you are proactive, you can create, invent something, and work on long-term projects. Instant messengers and social networks drag us into a reactive state that is very difficult to get out of. You think: I’m going to answer everyone now, and then I’ll be able to do the important thing I’ve been intending to do all day. But people just keep sending you messages, and there’s no end in sight.

Urgent unimportant stuff. Another concept that everyone is familiar with is that important non-urgent tasks should be prioritized over unimportant urgent matters. When you give your attention to instant messengers, you are doing those unimportant urgent tasks. Surely nothing is really going to happen if you don’t answer someone right now, and answer a couple of hours later. But these small, unimportant things take up your whole day. I know how it goes. I have days when I just respond to people all day long, without doing anything really important. I try to get something else done at the same time, but someone’s always writing and distracting me. If a person responds to my chat message within a minute or responds to an email within a few minutes, I know that they’re not doing anything important right now. If someone does this consistently, I can conclude that this person is inefficient. If they say they have too much work to do and they’re always staying late at the office, I assume that the culprit is poor time management.

What makes us get distracted by all this?

To solve the problem, it’s important to understand its nature. What makes us keep reading new messages and responding to everyone in instant messengers and email when we know that it’s a bad idea? There are actually a lot of reasons.

FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out. This is a common term describing the sense of “what if something important happens, and I miss it?” This is the feeling that makes us check social networks and refresh the news feed. Most of the time, there’s nothing important there at all — and we know this, but anyway we keep checking again and again.

The Always Online stereotype. For some reason, it’s very common nowadays to tell someone: “Call or write anytime — I’m available 24/7.” We get messages from coworkers, friends, or random people, and they expect us to respond quickly. We know that they are waiting for a quick response, so we can’t let them down.

The Inbox Zero stereotype. We only feel calm when we don’t have any unread messages anywhere, and we don’t see any of those red badge numbers. The problem is that this doesn’t happen very often these days.

Dopamine. This is something that is produced in the brain when we experience something positive. And based on our subjective perception, when we get new messages or likes, it releases dopamine. This happens because we think there’s going to be something new and interesting. They say our brains are similar to monkeys’ (it’s called “monkey mind”) and we’re pretty addicted to this chemical. I’m not strong in science, but I know how hard it is to not look at new messages, so it rings true.

What should you do?

There probably isn’t a universal formula that works for everyone, but I’ll tell you what worked for me.

Completely turn off notifications for all services on both your phone and computer. I just left the badges on the icons for a few of the apps on my phone that I don’t open very often.

Artificially limit the number of times you open distracting services. The rule that helps me is to open certain services no more than X times a day.For instance, I check email twice a day, Slack 5 times a day, and Facebook twice daily. I even use a separate app where I track how many times I’ve checked which services. It was hard to get into this rhythm at first, after being “always online.” All my colleagues were used to being able to contact me at any time. I had real withdrawal for a while — I really wanted to check what they wrote. Now I have a set rhythm, and everyone is more or less used to it, so they don’t expect a fast response from me.

Understand that nothing will happen if you don’t respond right now. Many modern leaders have their work organized in a way that their subordinates can ask questions and get answers at absolutely any time. But the truth is that the more often you respond, the more you indulge other people. They stop solving questions on their own because they know that they can always turn to you. They don’t care that you’re busy, and they don’t even think about that because you always answer them. But honestly, nothing will happen if you don’t answer them. Most of the questions are not really that urgent. Your coworkers can resolve a lot of issues by themselves if you don’t help them. And it’s actually even good for them since it makes them more self-reliant. In a pinch, if the question is really super urgent, they’ll find a way to get a hold of you.

Get used to the fact that Inbox Zero is impossible in today’s world. Unread messages and letters are normal. You can go to bed without reading all your notifications. You can wake up and not look at your phone for the first two hours. Yes, it’s not easy to do, but it’s important to realize that nothing will happen if you don’t look at your messages right now.

Organize your work so that no one distracts you. Of course, that’s easy for me to say because I don’t have very many actual management issues that require my daily involvement. So what do you do if you have to resolve 30–40 minor issues every day? I’m sure there’s a way to set aside at least part of the day when no one can distract you. For example, you can devote the morning to your own tasks and not open any messaging services until afternoon, when you can deal with the questions that have come up for everyone. This really works well if you can start work early while most people are still asleep — these types of people are usually very efficient.

Meditate. I find it difficult to explain how meditation influences your ability to resist checking instant messengers and email. But in general, there is even a scientific explanation for this. During meditation, you learn to observe your own mind and to understand what’s going on in your brain. And if you can do that, it makes it easier to deal with your brain’s demands. You start to notice the times when you want to check email. Ask yourself exactly why you want to check it right now. You may realize that you’re just bored. You then remember that there are a lot of exciting things to do, and you don’t go to your email. That’s basically how it works.

What’s the result?

Besides the obvious fact that I started getting more done, there were some unexpected results:

I’ve been spending less time working, and work tires me out more. Have you ever noticed that when you’re focused on work without any distractions, you get tired pretty fast? It’s okay because it’s actually pretty hard to work without taking breaks. I don’t believe in the magic eight hours of effective work a day. If you work for four hours a day, but you really do it efficiently without getting distracted by all kinds of stuff, you’ll get a lot more done than those who sit at work for 10 hours doing a lot of different things at the same time.

I started sleeping more. What do we usually do before we go to sleep? Naturally, we check our phones one last time — and everyone knows that this can take a long time. And there’s also the risk that you’ll see something that’s going to keep you awake for a while. Now that I have the option of not checking my phone, I can just go to bed and fall asleep. And the option to not check your phone in the morning also saves time that you can spend on sleep or exercise.

I’ve started doing things that I just didn’t have time for before. For instance, I have time to read books, listen to podcasts, and watch interesting interviews on YouTube. I used to check Facebook or email whenever I had a spare minute, and now I rarely do this, so I have a chance to spend my time in more useful ways. There are actually a lot of things that I could share more details on, but this article is already too long.

You can share your thoughts in the comments section, and if something really interesting comes up, I’ll cover it separately in the next article.