I was picking my daughter up from her first day of school, and I was so excited to hear how it went that got there a few minutes early. I could go in and spend a few extra minutes observing her class….or I could sneak one last peek at the day’s e-mail. Sure enough, I pulled out my iPhone, only to experience that little ping of disappointment when the hoped-for e-mail from a prospective client had yet to arrive. I headed into my daughter’s classroom, my excitement about the first day of school now dulled, ever so slightly, by the disappointment of that missing e-mail.
What is it that makes checking e-mail, checking Twitter, and checking Facebook into such constant compulsions? I’m far from the only person who can barely go an hour without looking at Outlook or Gmail. The speed of conversation on Twitter only intensifies the check, check, checking behaviour: skip your hourly glance and you might miss an interesting tweet or breaking news item. iPhones and Blackberries take it still further: you don’t even have to be at your computer to fill that empty two minutes with a quick scan of your various inboxes.
When I step back to look at my reflexive checking, I find it’s motivated by a constant, low-grade hopeful curiosity…the result of which is information overload. Even if I’m not waiting for a specific e-mail, I’m always eager to see what might drop onto my screen. Maybe I’ll have a new prospect. Maybe I’ll have an e-mail from an long-lost friend. Maybe someone will have sent me a pony!
That hopeful current of “what if” reminds me of the irrationality of buying lottery tickets. When people buy lottery tickets, they know that the chance of winning is vanishingly small. They’re not paying for the chance to win: they’re paying for the chance to hope, to dream about all the happy consequences that would flow from a windfall.
Hope is a powerful support and motivator, and dreaming about an alternate, worry-free future is a great way of connecting with the passions that would drive you in the absence of financial need. But I’ve always resisted the siren song of lotteries by pinning my “what ifs” on the lottery of life: what if I found a guy’s wallet in the street, and he turned out to be a billionaire who thanked me with a small fortune? What if that vase of my grandmother’s turns out to be a valuable antique? What if I sold a book for hundreds of thousands of dollars? Buying a lottery ticket doesn’t increase my odds of overnight millions by any significant percentage, so I might as well spend the two bucks on an Americano.
The same logic applies to the compulsive e-mail or Twitter check-in. Yes, I could discover something delightful or interesting by checking my inbox. But I might also discover something delightful or interesting by striking up a conversation with the person at the next table in a restaurant. I might experience a moment of amusement by noticing the kid toddling along in front of me, rather than looking for the latest Twitter wisecrack. Unlikely as it may seem, I might even enjoy a moment of doing and thinking nothing at all.
Finding hope outside the inbox doesn’t just require a shift in attitude; it requires a shift in behavior. To break the Pavlovian association between the ping of a new e-mail and the excitement of possibility, you have to find that excitement elsewhere. Here are some practices that can help you awaken hopefulness offline, so you can stop checking for the next online nugget:
- Talk to a stranger. Part of the excitement of checking your inbox comes from the possibility of a new connection. You can experience that same excitement by striking up an offline conversation with somebody you don’t know. Internet cafes are, ironically, one of the easiest places to talk to someone new: just ask someone about their laptop or for help connecting to the network.
- Declare a Twitter sabbath. Observant Jews go without electronics — without turning on electricity! — from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. You don’t have to keep kosher to discover the benefits of 24 hours offline each week. If a day without e-mail feels unimaginable, try a day without Twitter. I went three whole days (!) this past long-weekend, and enjoyed the opportunity to experience memorable moments without boiling them down to 140 characters.
- Pick up a new paper or magazine. I am slavish in my devotion to three publications: the New York Times, the New Yorker, and Entertainment Weekly. But when I picked up a copy of Craft (the arts & crafts counterpart to Make) I had my mind blown by a whole world of people sharing tips and ideas I’d never otherwise hear about. If you rely on Twitter to inject a little serendiptious information into your day, reading a publication you’ve never tried can be a great way of finding that serendipity — without the character limit.
- Get a POFCP: plain old-fashioned cell phone. I understand that your babysitter needs to reach you on date night: that doesn’t mean your boss needs to, as well. So pop the SIM card out of your iPhone or Blackberry, and stick it into a super cheap phone that offers nothing more than the ability to make and receive calls. You can’t check your e-mail if you can’t check your e-mail.
- Notice the negatives. How often do you check your inbox with a sense of hopefulness, only to be rewarded with a stab of horror? Whether it’s the e-mail asking you for that overdue report, or the tweet about how your competitor just got a big new contract, online life is full of little disappointments. Those disappointments can be a great ally in weaning you off your constant inbox-checking, if you stop to notice and absorb your frustrations. The more you reinforce your awareness of the downsides of constant check-ins, the better you’ll be able to resist your compulsion.
- Hop on the bus. If you live in a city with public transit, catch a bus or subway to a part of town you’ve never visited. Hop off at a random stop, and wander through residential streets or shops you didn’t know existed. Take a coffee break, and eavesdrop on a conversation. Embrace tiny discoveries — a new phrase, a different brand of soda, an unfamiliar plant. Are they any smaller than the tiny novelties you find on Facebook?
- Ask for gifts. One of the rewards of inbox and Twitter check-ins is the experience of receiving little gifts: The mention from someone you don’t know. The helpful message from someone who responded to your request for information. The recent online purchase that just shipped. You need to remind yourself that sudden rewards can appear offline, too — but it helps if you ask for them. Ask your son to give you the painting he made today; ask the person leaving the grocery store if she can hold the door for you; ask your sweetie to surprise you occasionally with wine or chocolates. Once you start attending to the many surprises of life offline, you’ll stop thinking of the Internet as the only place that rains goodies.
The point of these practices is not to break you of your interest in Twitter, Facebook or e-mail. It’s to help you — and me! — get off the treadmill of constant check-ins, and restore online communications to a tool rather than a compulsion.