No Email

See more articles on concentration/distraction

The average person gets distracted every seven minutes and you can’t complete a coherent thought if it takes longer than that. 

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No Email

Six months ago I deleted email from my phone by unlinking my Gmail account from the iPhone Mail app. Technically I could still check my email using Safari but I use 1Password to manage my passwords and the experience on mobile requires several, fairly time consuming steps to retrieve a password for an application and login to it. It???s certainly enough friction to break the urge to login and check email while e.g. walking or during a conversation.

I did this mostly out of curiousity around two questions; could I actually do it given how addicted to checking my email I was and what consequences would it have in my daily life? The first is easily answered, it???s been six months and I still don???t have easy access to email on my phone. The adjustment process was surprisingly difficult though. During the first few days I was somewhat shocked by how anxious it made me not being able to constantly check my email. I actually became irritable and frustrated. I became aware of just how habitual it had become to open up the Mail app every spare second I had. This feeling passed and was gradually replaced by a feeling of liberation.

The consequences have been interesting and vary from obvious to non obvious. Mostly obviously, I???ve become much slower at replying email. The downside to this is significantly reduced by a change we made at YC earlier this year. We created a shared email address that all partners are on, which founders can ping when they need help, especially if the matter is time sensitive. If I happen to be away from my computer for a few hours it???s likely someone else will see the email and reply. If it???s something truly urgent that only I can help with, the other partners have my cell number and can call/text me.

The least obvious consequence has been the lengthening of my concentration span, even when I???m at my desk with easy access to my email. I???ve long realized that email is the biggest killer of my productivity e.g. if I???m trying to code I never stop to go and play video games but I did stop and check my email because I could justify it as work (???work??? that is both significantly easier and provides a quicker dopamine hit than trying to solve a hard problem). But once I rid myself of the habit of checking email constantly on my phone, suddenly I had less of a habitual urge to check my email in general. It feels wonderful.

A consequence that falls in between these two on the spectrum of obviousness has been my perception of time. Over the past six months the days have actually started feeling longer to me. If I???m walking from one place to another I actually have time to look around, observe my surroundings (which is actually a great source of cheeriness when you live in Palo Alto, the place has a real cheery feel to it) and most importantly, to think. It only takes a few of these moments to have a considerable impact on stopping the day feeling like it has whizzed by in a blur.

Having time to think is precious to me and it???s also incredibly important if you want to achieve anything close to original thought. William Deresiewicz articulates this well in his lecture Solitude and Leadership:

I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else???s; it???s always what I???ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It???s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea.

Smartphones make it harder than ever to actually stick with your thoughts and keep working on them until they???ve been polished into something interesting. Joe Kraus talks about this in his talk on what he calls ???SlowTech??? .

Once I realized the power of this I went on to delete more than just email. Facebook, Twitter and Quora apps have all been removed (for me Twitter has been the one I???ve missed the most). It???s been the best decision I???ve made this year and would highly recommend it.

839 Kudos

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