Winning the inbox war: 4 small but helpful tricks to spend less time on your phone

The alarm goes off. I roll over and immediately grab my phone. For three minutes I’ll lay in bed, checking notifications brought on by some invisible urge.

If I have unread emails from the office, I’ll respond. If I have marketing or promotional emails, I’ll let out a big “sigh,” wondering why people still think spam works in 2020. Back to scrolling.

I wash my face, take a shower, and get dressed. Then it’s a quick breakfast, phone in hand. Scrolling. Responding. Occasionally deleting. I’ve got a coffee now sitting in front of my laptop. First thing I do? Check email.

It’s nearly 10:30 AM and I’ve hit a creative wall. To take a break, I glance at my phone and notice a notification. Actually, it’s more like three notifications, all from Gmail. Nothing important, really — a book I ordered shipped. Several more marketing promos from brands having a sale. I may slip up and click one just to see how good the deal is.

Six hours have gone by and brain fog is settling in. My phone is just sitting there on the table, so I grab it to alleviate the discomfort of pure silence and mental fatigue. Another two hours pass and it’s 6:00 PM. I check my work email one last time, skimming through everything until I see zero unread messages. I shut the laptop and pick up my phone.

It’s time for personal email. The good stuff. More scrolling.

Sound Familiar?

Do I remember most of the emails I read? No.

Do they make my day more productive? Do they teach me anything? Will they in any way alter my life? No, no, and also, no…

How much time do I waste “just checking”? I don’t want to think about it.
We have a serious addiction to our phones — specifically notifications.
They are abused as an escape from reality. An opportunity to leave the boredom of the present in search of stimulation. This wasn’t always the case. I remember getting a smartphone for the first time as a sophomore in high school. I didn’t care much about email or apps. It was a product of freedom.

As the years have gone on, phones evolved into another appendage. People feel anxious without them. Losing your phone is like losing control of a limb.

That sense of freedom feels more like a weight. I can be reached at any time in any location without escape. I don’t have an excuse not to check and respond to emails.

What can we do?

Recently, I have been experimenting with different ways to leverage the positives of my phone without suffering from all the downsides. I’m sure most people reading this could benefit from a strategic detox too.

Here are a few ideas and habits that really work.

Set Strict Rules For How People Reach You

Want to chat? You can send me a Slack, Instagram DM, Facebook Message, Gmail, Yahoo email, office email, text, GroupMe, Tweet, or LinkedIn message.

The bottom line: it’s too much. It’s overwhelming.

Pick two or three and shut off the rest. I used to have five different emails and would check all of them regularly. It was pure chaos.

Instead, my work email is the only thing I pay attention to between 9 AM and 6 PM. My personal Gmail is active between 7 PM and 9 PM. Close friends and family can text me. That’s it.

Everything important comes through one of those channels. Freelance, PR, and other side-hustle contacts are aware of when and how they can reach me. Rather than turning to my inbox as a distraction, these limitations encourage far less frequency and jumping between emails throughout the day.

Set guidelines for yourself and stick to them. You’ll be surprised at how much time is saved.

Eliminate Future Emails

I am a marketer. I know what other marketers do with emails. They get loaded into a database and (if they’re smart) segmented into lists. From that moment on, they own you.

Here’s an easy workaround. When I want to give a company my email for a promotion but don’t want it to be saved, I use a free masked email service like Abine Blur. Basically, a masked email platform auto-generates a fake email to use on forms.

You still get the singular email, marked with a message from Blur at the top. But you can select to stop any future marketing emails from arriving because the sender never sees what your real email address is.

There’s far less of a pull to check email when nothing is in your inbox. Honestly, it’s a beautiful thing.

Sleep With A Traditional Alarm Clock

For the early mornings and the late evenings. Get used to putting your phone in another room before bed. Like most, after five minutes of laying there in the darkness, I am tempted to start scrolling.

An old school alarm clock is the best of both worlds. You still wake up on time and don’t need to keep your phone within arms reach at night.

There’s nothing that disrupts your sleep cycle more than a 2 AM notification. The whole nightstand buzzes. You feel the urge to check it for no real reason. And now you’re awake. Probably scrolling again.

It’s an inexpensive solution that has forced me to fall asleep at a reasonable time.

Buy Bluetooth Headphones

Solving a device addiction with more technology isn’t always the answer. In this case, you’re reducing distraction without sacrificing pleasure.

I enjoy listening to a deep focus playlist while working. I like to think it helps me get into a creative flow more effectively. The downside is that it’s a Spotify playlist on my phone. Sometimes I want to change the song which often leads to other activities like email.

Get yourself a quality pair of noise-canceling Bluetooth headphones. Download a playlist you can listen to on repeat for hours. Keep your phone in another room while working. It’s that simple.

Final Thoughts

I am more present in my writing, relationships, and creative work when my phone is an accessory, not a necessity. As Ryan Holiday wrote, “Because it’s my life and it’s ticking away every second. I want to be there for it, not staring at a screen.”

Just imagine a life where email is simply a mode of communication. Not a recycling bin of spam. Or a sales pitch from every person trying to connect on LinkedIn.

Wouldn’t that be great?

This article first appeared in Medium.