Jonathan Rowson at the RSA, who goes on my very long list of people I’d like to one day meet in person when I’m in London, muses over why we check our email, rather than, say, read it; and what consequence a different term might have.

The collapse of boundaries between work and home is not always a bad thing, but the ubiquity of smart phones means that there is always an imminent threat of such a collapse happening at the wrong moment. Perhaps some people can absorb news about a funding application, troubling information about a colleague or a reminder of an imminent deadline and return to the mood and attentiveness they had before checking, but I haven’t met them yet, and suspect they are few and far between.

Perhaps the core issue is the default verb we use for email. This whole idea of ‘checking’ email feels wrong to me. Why this verb- to check? It suggests a kind of vigilance and surveillance that a responsible person ought to undertake, like “I’m just going to check I have my passport” or “I’m just going to check I locked the front door.” If we shifted this mindset of ‘checking’, the presence of email on our smartphones may not be such a threat to our presence and peace of mind. If email was instead something one had ‘to do’ or ‘to write’ or ‘to read’, the perceived urgency ‘to check’ would not be there and the restless habitual tendencies that underpin it might thereby be weakened.

Lest one dismiss this as mere proof of PG Wodehouse’s declaration that it’s never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine, I think he has a good point, and my own experience backs him up.

Checking messages on the plane

First, as I argue in my book (due out in LESS THAN NINE WEEKS NOT THAT I’M COUNTING), the language we use to describe software can have an influence on how we use it. I was actually rather surprised to find that with Zenware, the framing of the software– the use of Buddhist language and references, in particular– was actually pretty important:

You don’t adopt Zenware unless you want a distraction-free experience: the sense of entering a placid, pro- tective space that reminds you of the sacredness of your own thinking, that won’t clutter your screen with unnecessary functionality, that appreciates the value of your attention…. Zenware is partly useful for its formal properties but also because it represents your determination to focus. Further, in the course of acquiring and learning to use OmmWriter or WriteRoom, you’re exposed to the Buddhist-like language on the Web site, in the user testimonials, and even in the software itself. This isn’t just window dressing; it’s what Berkeley anthropologist George Lakoff calls framing — the material signals the developer’s intent, sets your expectations, and gives you a language for describing why you use this software.

Second, for the last couple months I’ve been experimenting with quiet alarm sounds: rather than wails or submarine dive noises I’ve been using bits of Yo-Yo Ma cello pieces, a few seconds of Chopin, a line of Chinese lute music, a dash of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports (as played by Bang on a Can), and other things.


The difference is striking. Not having a sound that immediately tries to grab your attention and demand an instant response is great; having a line of The Well-Tempered Clavier is the auditory equivalent of a brief nod or raised eyebrow or quiet cough. It’s not an alarm. It’s the small economical gesture that unobtrusively but unambiguously communicates a lot.

This message has no content

Likewise, thinking in terms of “checking” email sets you up to think of the experience as one that requires immediate action. In this system of expectations, if you don’t instantly answer that message, you’re doing it wrong. In contrast, “reading” or gathering mail suggests a different kind of experience: more considered, slower, more thoughtful. Just as serious, but the seriousness that’s reflected in deliberation rather than instant reaction.