By Greg McKeown
I recently attended a small group meeting with a senior executive of a globally recognized company. In the hour long Q&A she demonstrated her amazing management competence over a 20-year career. The conversation became especially engaging as she answered, with total candor, the work/life tradeoffs she had made. She said:
“I have lived at this company. Day after day I have just picked up the phone and called my husband and kids and said, ‘I’m staying at work tonight.’”
“For 20 years, the victims have been my family. They did not see me at all!”
“Even today, I sleep with my phone by my ear. If I get an email at 3:00AM then I answer it by 3:05AM.”
“Everyone is just the same! People just love the company. My assistant is here with me. When I email her at 4:00AM she responds by 4:05AM, right?”
All heads turned to her assistant at the back of the room who, a little like a deer in the headlights, nodded and smiled in agreement. It was a curious and cringeworthy moment. Not only did this executive seem addicted to email, she was a pusher too! While I am sure such an extreme email expectation is still an outlier, I see increasing evidence that many cultures, companies and individuals are out of control when it comes to email.
According to one recent study reported in TIME magazine, people check their phone on average 110 times a day. Some people checked it as much as 900 times a day; that’s once every minute of every waking hour of the day. The study didn’t distinguish between email and other apps but it still contributes to this conversation about addiction.
What about you? Is it possible that you are addicted to email? I used to think it was just a loose metaphor but now I believe it is literally true for many of us. Below are a few questions I have adapted from research into more traditional forms of addiction.
1. Do you ever find yourself wanting to take a break from email but are unable to?
2. If your email isn’t working because you don’t have WiFi or cellular coverage do you feel a bout of irritation or moodiness?
3. Have you ever left a dinner just so you could check your email without being seen?
4. Are there people in your life who complain about how much you check email?
5. Do you ever turn to email as an escape from something you don’t want to face?
People often turn to various addictions to drown out something they don’t want to face. “One of the most universal numbing strategies is what I call crazy-busy. I often say that when they start having 12-step meetings for busy-aholics, they’ll need to rent out football stadiums. We are a culture of people who’ve bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us.”
The price of this addiction can be high. Incessantly checking email can leave us making a millimeter progress in a million directions. We feel busy all day but we still carry the burden of knowing we did not get the most essential work done–at work or at home.
Email makes a great servant but a poor master. When we give our lives over to it what we experience is not information overload but opinion overload. We allow everyone to get a vote in how we spend our time. So in a recent Essentialist experiment I unplugged for two weeks: I did not check email once. It was a digital detox; an email crash diet. I was curious and anxious to see everything I had missed while I was off the grid. Here is what I missed: nothing. It took me just 2.5 hours to respond to all the emails I received. That’s just a fraction of the time I would have spent if I had been checking every two minutes.
I don’t wish to strike a holier-than-thou tone on this subject at all. Indeed, on my worst days, I have wondered if my tomb stone will read, “He Checked Email.” It makes me think of a statement from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The crime which bankrupts men and nations is that of turning aside from one’s main purpose to serve a job here and there.”
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