Ever since I got my first iPhone in 2007 I’ve had my work email account linked to it. For a while this worked really well: at the time I was commuting to and from work every day and so I used to use this time to get on top of emails. It made me feel very productive. But that didn’t last long. Very soon I realised that most emails I had to sent involved me sending an attachment, checking files on my Mac, or editing a document that I’d been emailed: email, for me at least, isn’t about sending messages but about managing complex tasks.

The clever thing to have done when I realised this would have been simply to disable my work email from my phone. But I didn’t do that. I had technology so I should use it! But what did that mean in reality? Well, it meant that now and again I’d open up the mail app, read a load of emails without replying to any of them, and then put my phone away. The problem: even though the phone went away, I didn’t stop thinking about the email I’d read. I was spending more and more time planning responses in my head to write later.

This has just got worse and worse over time, and checking emails has become a bit of an obsession.  A very bad obsession. I wouldn’t just fill dead time checking email, but I’d do it whilst boiling the kettle, watching tv, sometimes even whilst talking to people on the phone. Hardly the most mindful or productive of practices. And I know I’m not alone in being trapped by email in this way.

I was re-reading Tim Ferris’s 4-hour work-week on holiday last month. Although I’m not entirely comfortable with everything in this book, there are some really interesting ideas on general productivity. He has the following advice about email (this is actually an extract from a mail that Tim sent to his employees):

“In an effort to increase productivity and efficiency I am beginning a new personal email policy. I’ve recently realised I spend more time shuffling through my inbox and less time focused on the task at hand. It has become an unnecessary distraction that ultimately creates longer lead times on my ever-growing ‘to do’ list. Going forward I will only be checking/responding to email at 11a and 4pm on weekdays.”

And so it was, on a sunny Monday afternoon in the South of France that I decided to disable my email account on my phone. Just as soon as I got back to my hotel room. Did I? Of course not. But I promised myself I’d do it just as soon as I got home from my holidays.  But the day after that I was going on a work trip to Belfast so I couldn’t possibly do it then because I needed to be permanently contactable (the fact that people could have just phoned me on the same device was irrelevant as far as my irrational brain was concerned). There was always an excuse.

Sitting on a train on Thursday this week I found myself back in the old pattern of reading endless emails and doing nothing about them. I wasn’t even putting things into my to do list. I decided to work out how much time I was wasting doing this. The first time I opened my emails, I realised, was after turning off my alarm clock that morning. Yes, you read correctly. I turned my alarm off at 6.30am and before even getting out of bed, I’d checked my inbox. No email is that urgent. If it was, I shouldn’t have been emailed about it in the first place. I didn’t need to do any more calculation or thinking. Emailing synching disabled.

Three days later I must have opened up my email app about 14 times. It’s become habit. But there is nothing there any more so I just close it down and do something else more productive. And not necessarily work: on Friday morning I closed the app down and made a phone call to catch up with a family member. Who knew I’d have time to make values-driven choices about how I spend my time once email wasn’t ruling my consciousness 24/7?

I’m still anxious about not having my permanent link to email—I don’t know why, it isn’t even like I can’t just log onto webmail—and it’ll take time to fall out of the checking routine. The change is tiny. It feels huge. But sometimes, huge steps need to be taken to make the most of the precious little time we have on this Earth.