My strange addiction: sorting emails
Learning to hit ‘quit’
The longest continuous time period I used to go without checking my email was the time I spent sleeping which, according to the app that has been keeping track of my sleep habits for the past 78 days, averages 4 hours and 38 minutes (oops, sorry Mom). That’s not a very long time, yet I can always count on waking up and seeing that annoying red bubble at the upper right corner of the app, telling me how many emails made their way into my inbox as I slept.
There was a time when an essential step to my morning routine, between silencing my alarm clock and getting out of my bed, was opening up my laptop, sitting cross-legged atop my blankets, and scrolling through that inevitable list of emails. Driven mostly by compulsion inspired by my dislike of the red bubble telling me how many emails I still hadn’t read, I started my day by sorting a pile of emails into folders, affording each subject line a cursory scan before categorizing and occasionally marking emails to reread or reply to later.
However, this behavior was not just limited to my mornings. During the day, whenever I worked on something on my laptop, I could say with certainty that whatever task I was doing took at least 10 percent longer because with every email notification I received, I spent five seconds looking at its contents and sticking it in a folder. There was just something so satisfying about not seeing the red bubble and having a mostly empty inbox, not congested with random messages about people moving other people’s laundry, Piazza notifications that I never get around to unsubscribing from, and unending dormspam.
I began to recognize the absurdity of my email-sorting habits when I would be trying to type notes, working on a pset, or having a casual conversation, and completely lose my train of thought at the sight of an email notification. An email couldn’t survive in my inbox for even two minutes before being dragged into some other folder. It doesn’t seem too bad to have a clear inbox and organized emails, but I soon realized that I worried more about deciding which box an email fit in than I cared about its contents. Rather than actually think about what the emails were saying, I read them for the singular purpose of getting rid of the red bubble and having a nice, clean inbox.
Everything changed when, one morning, instead of clicking the red “x” at the corner of my screen to close my email, I right-clicked the email app icon and hit ‘quit.’ Blissfully unaware of what I had done, I went on with my day as usual. Strange as it was, I paid little notice to the fact that I didn’t receive a single email notification. Maybe I just assumed my emails were being quiet for once, but this was proven false when, out of habit, I reopened my email app as I sat down for dinner and saw the red bubble and the number within it: 83.
You can probably imagine my horror. Sure, I saw the red bubble often enough when I did my morning sort, but the number of emails I received while asleep rarely exceeded 15. At that point, I don’t think I’d had more than 20 unread emails at a time for months. I immediately began to read and sort, and now that the only thing I was thinking about was these emails, compared to my typical pattern of moving the email and continuing on with my other tasks, I found myself caring a little more about what they had to say. No, I didn’t start gaining any amazing insights from laundry emails, but I did start reading Piazza posts that seemed helpful to me and making notes of events that sounded interesting in my calendar.
Even though it took some adjustment, I’ve started hitting “quit” more often on my email app, especially when doing work that requires a lot of concentration. Instead of interrupting other parts of my life to sort an email, I dedicate time to solely reading my emails, allowing me to think about their content and preventing me from missing important details.
More significantly, my general quality of life has improved. When I’m not constantly receiving notifications, I feel less anxious about reacting to them. Though I used to be unequivocally bothered by the thought that there were emails I hadn’t yet sorted and that I would have to see the red bubble, hitting the “quit” button has brought me peace of mind.
I doubt everyone is as compulsive as I was about getting my emails organized, but if I can name anything as a lesson from my strange email-sorting addiction, it’s to find your “quit” button. If there’s any habit of yours that is causing you more stress than it’s worth, try to change how often you engage with it. Taking a moment to stop, breathe, and be free of a persistent concern can make a big difference in your health and happiness.