I started thinking about the problem a few months ago, when I was burned out from a year of overwork at the theater company I run. By chance, I found myself with a copy of Carl Honoré's In Praise of Slowness, a brilliant criticism of the culture of speed. Honoré is a proponent of the Slow movement, which encourages a deceleration of everything from cooking to business management, driving to talking styles—based on the belief that speed can produce disconnection from daily life. And every time I read the word speed, I couldn't help substituting e-mail.
Of course, I might never have read his book at all if I hadn't been kindly put on mandatory vacation by everyone in my life. One of my theater partners said, "Why don't you take four weeks? You can't get anything done over the holidays, anyway." Though I burst out laughing, I conceded, kind of: I took three days. And after they passed, I took another. And another. I put up an outgoing message on my e-mail saying I'd be away for an entire week. Then total irrationality struck. I couldn't take vacation for the rest of my life, but I began fantasizing about what would happen if I gave up e-mail for good.
In the end, I decided on a 30-day e-mail detox. No e-mail, in or out, for one month. Anyone can do a month, right?
A week before I go off e-mail, the reactions from friends and coworkers range from nausea to abject envy and awe. There are those who revel in their "crackberry" addiction and dread the looming disconnection, and those who long to walk on their own without their iron lung. Everyone wants to explain why they could never do what I'm about to.
I create a chirpy bounce-back message that people will receive if they e-mail me, and offer my cell phone number as an olive branch.
At a staff meeting, I announce that I will be unreachable by e-mail for 30 days! I enthusiastically outline the plan and the motivation behind it! I am met with dead silence. The staff are neither enthralled nor inspired. They are wondering how this is going to affect them. Oh, dear. I hadn't thought of the impact on these lovely, generous, already overextended people. Now everyone hates me. I am The One Whom No One Can Reach.
Two days to go. There are a million ways to cheat at the abstinence game, and I'm flirting with every one of them. Each time, the idea seems reasonable enough (I'll just look to make sure I'm not missing a great work opportunity! I'll switch to text messaging!), until I voice the thought aloud and am met with looks of pity mixed with disgust.
I dream that my girlfriends kick me out of their clubhouse.
Going through my final e-mails, I feel a nervous tingling, imagining myself slipping down the slope of out-of-the-loop-ness. I have pictured this process, imagining the quiet solitude of recovery. The time freed up, the interaction on a human plane. But panic takes over as the click of my mouse sends the final Dear John message out across my world.
Halfway through the day, my cell phone battery dies from overuse.
By noon, I have four outraged voice mails from my best friend: "If you're going to do this, leave your cell on! And in your pocket!" I've had a cell for only four years. We've been friends for 12. How did our friendship survive?
I call my mother. "Thank God you're somewhere!" she jokes. In fact, the Internet is the most not-somewhere you can be. But I see what she means.
I had pictured having some mongoose-like vigor that would send me into a fury of creativity, but it's not happening. I made the horrible, horrible mistake of clearing out the day for this. And now I sit here while everyone else in the theater office is reading e-mail. The desire to cheat is ravenous.
Still Day One
There's a Bermuda Triangle in my life of to-do items that get lost until a significant space of rediscovered time is created, at which point these items reappear like lost pilots who walk toward their loved ones through a mist, wearing 1940s clothes. The pilots are now reappearing.
I need to contact my whole cast to change tomorrow's rehearsal time. Six actors times two minutes per call equals 12 minutes. Upside: One actor never checks e-mail, another's is down; phone calls assure rehearsal change works. Might hang on to this system after my 30 days are up.
I wish I had someone looking at my in-box for me, to make sure nothing disastrous is happening. Although, really, what could be disastrous in an office setting if you're not, say, a terrorist watch organization? My inflated sense of self-importance is becoming clearer. My Zen teacher would be so proud. Screw her.
On vacation. At Disney World, with my mother and 4-year-old son. For a person who has not been on vacation without a laptop or within walking distance of an Internet café in eight years, yesterday was a cruel beginning. I was in old-school mode: rushing to get in as many rides as possible, dashing back to the Fastpass area when what we needed was a break and a snack. So, no surprise to anyone (but me) that by 3 P.M. we were in full 4-year-old meltdown mode.
But today I am here. Finally. Disconnected from everything but my son's energy level and my bladder. And if you can believe it, it is a sweet, slow Disney day.
Back from vacation. Virtually no voice mails at work. Panic. Did I write the wrong number on that final e-mail? Or are they not calling because (a) it's too annoying, (b) it's too time-consuming, (c) they're lazy, or (d) they've forgotten me? Oy. There goes my career.
I am getting used to this. And liking it. A lot. Getting out of the quick-response mode that e-mail fosters has allowed me to slow down mentally and physically.
I call Carl Honoré, author of In Praise of Slowness, in London. Though he's made vast changes in his life since researching slowness (talking slowly isn't one of them, I'm amused to note), he admits that he's been unable to curb his e-mail use. I ask what he thinks of the detox idea.
"It's fabulous, though obviously extreme," he says. "I don't think many of us can do without e-mail permanently. The pendulum has swung too far. But a 30-day break could remind you that you can do without it. In this always-on culture, you can be reached anytime—as though that's always a good thing. It's not. We need times to be silent, to be unplugged."
"But where does energy come in?" I ask, relieved to voice a question that's been nagging me. How can we be slow but still enthusiastic, impulsive, spontaneous—all that good stuff that goes along with creativity and engagement?
"The reason that's even a question is that there's such a strong cultural taboo against being slow—which has come to mean being lazy, a slacker," he says. "It's true that doing everything slowly would be lamentable, but the Slow philosophy isn't about that. It's about shifting gears to rest, recharge, reflect, tap into the deeper stuff." Thus the Slow movement encourages eating with attention, taking the time to think before you respond, and, in general, practicing the art of stopping to smell the coffee. Well, maybe not coffee. Decaf, perhaps.
"And then when you need to shift into higher gear," Honoré explains, "you have more get-up-and-go, more clarity, more va-va-voom. You have more vitality because you're not worn out. Life becomes richer; you develop new rhythms."
Halfway There, and Beyond
I'm starting to have Hawaiian Vacation Syndrome: that urge that grips you midway through a fabulous trip, when you start casually flipping through the local real estate listings, entertaining what seem to be perfectly rational thoughts about moving to a tropical island permanently.
What would happen if I canceled AOL for good? Sent out a final mass e-mail saying I'd found the light? Like all new converts, I would spend my time at cocktail parties proselytizing. And like all new converts, I would quickly stop being asked to cocktail parties. Then I'd become uninformed, reclusive, out of touch, and I'd lose my sense of humor. Maybe not the result I'm looking for.
Surprisingly, the final two weeks go by with no thoughts of e-mail. All that sending and receiving just holds no interest or concern. Extracting myself from e-mail took more effort than existing without it.
The Day After
Nervously, fearing the worst, I go online. How many messages could there be before AOL simply stopped processing them? But the pile is shockingly light. For the first week of my absence, there were about 35 e-mails a day. Then it peters out to ten or so a day (not including several daily offers for penile enhancement); since I wasn't sending any mail, I wasn't generating any communication. Several messages, from friends and coworkers, start out, "I know you're not on e-mail, but..." And by the time I'm reading these, almost everything in them is irrelevant.
I missed nothing.
I've gotten a ton of e-mails saying it's so nice to have me back. The ridiculous thing is that these are from friends I'd been seeing in person all month long.
Some changes may definitely stick. I'm no longer multitasking. No talking on the phone while doing e-mail. I now stop to listen to people with full attention. I respond more thoughtfully, not reacting immediately to demands from coworkers or 4-year-olds. I continue to call actors when I have rehearsal changes. And something fun or interesting always comes out of our chats.
I've noticed that when I begin the morning by checking e-mail, I don't create anything worth a damn all day; by the time I've slogged through my in-box, I'm tapped out. So I've started doing all my writing and brainstorming before I even log on. I can't remember the last time I had so much creative energy.
Surprisingly, I'm a lot less hostile to e-mail than I was before. Having proved that I can ditch it if I want to, I'm now choosing to use it. I'm more appreciative of the ways in which it really is useful.
So many of us are addicted to doing and achieving. And e-mail plays into that ego-affirming drive; you can get a powerful sense of leading an army as you send out your marching orders.
An e-mail halt gives you the opportunity to examine that drive to do. Every spiritual practice encourages a period of stillness, whether it's prayer, a daily five-minute meditation, or ten days of silence. That retreat offers a way to get perspective on the habitual movement toward achieving. In stepping back, in single-tasking, you can hear the calm, still voice that speaks clearly. This is where you find peace, reprioritize, and rejuvenate creative energy.
Three years ago, I wrote my husband a note that I left on his keyboard: "No one on their deathbed ever wished they had spent more time on the computer." It was a way to help him let himself off the hook for not working 24 hours a day. I never imagined it would become his closing gesture at the end of every day to place that note back on his keyboard. And I never imagined I'd believe my own advice.
Katie Goodman's book, Improvisation for the Spirit: Live a Creative, Spontaneous and Courageous Life Using the Tools of Improv Comedy (Sourcebooks), was published in July 2008.