In my recent month-long break from the internet, I learned a few things. It’s easy to let constant connectivity delude you into thinking that you really need to be in touch with the world all the time. After all, new emails come in every hour, new tweets and blog comments pile up, all demanding a response.
But what I learned in taking a break from it all was that I’m really not that important. When I came back to check my email for the first time in a month, of course there were lots of messages – so many that Gmail gave up counting:
Most of them, however, were not important – newsletters, announcements, invitations to parties in London, press releases, credit card statements, etc etc. When I looked at the really important ones, I could whittle it down to a handful.
There was an email telling me I’d won 3rd place in the Nottingham Short Story Competition and asking where they should send the £125 cheque – that’s one I replied to quickly! There was a lovely email from a reader who’d enjoyed On the Holloway Road and wanted to get in touch – that was next on the list. There were a few others from friends who didn’t realise I was away, a couple of updates on short story collections I’m part of, and that was about it.
Over the course of that month I could have spent countless hours checking and re-checking my email several times a day, all for that handful of important messages. It really made me think about how I use my time.
Of course, the sample is a little skewed. I did let everyone know I would be away, so maybe people didn’t email for that reason. In an average month I’d probably get more important messages. But really, when I think about it, not that many more. I spend a lot of time essentially processing garbage, hoping for an occasional nugget of gold.
On a slightly superstitious note, do you remember your mother telling you “A watched pot never boils”? I can’t help wondering whether the high proportion of good news in my inbox was a result of not checking for so long. While I wasn’t watching, the pot boiled over!
Anyway, I’d love to say that since I got back, I’ve changed my ways and not checked email so often. But it hasn’t worked out that way. I am, it seems, an incurable optimist. I know I’m not important, and that most of my email is not important, but still I check it several times a day, just in case. In fact, it’s open as I write this. If an email comes in, I’ll interrupt what I’m doing to go and read it. I think there are powerful psychological triggers at work here, overriding common sense and experience. I could skip email for a month with no consequences, but still I can’t shake the absurd feeling that if I don’t check, I might miss out on something really important…
How often do you check email? How many truly important messages do you get? Why is it sometimes hard to unplug?