7 days without email: Taming the tyrant
Can one work and live productively without email? I tried it so you don't have to.
Image credit: flickr/bblumpie
Email is like one of those movie mobsters you see holding court in a quiet restaurant all day: experienced in your weaknesses, powerful without moving, quietly running things, never losing their cool over the competition. Facebook, Twitter, Google Wave, SMS -- email just keeps holding court, working its way through its smokes, summoning your attention over to it with the tiniest of gestures from its hefty hands. Every day I write more email, and I can't escape worrying about hurt feelings or missed opportunities in an untended inbox. This is the kind of power, the psychic stranglehold that Facebook and other networks can only aspire to.
But maybe the email mobster has a weakness. It has, after all, spread itself very thin. Yet so much has been said and written about email, its place in our lives and its unstoppable campaign against our attention spans, it's hard to know where to start thinking about a strategy. For now, I'll just show you my situation, and then I'll share with you the week in which I tried to fix it.
According to my Google Account Activity Report, I received 2,007 emails in Gmail from 473 contacts from Feb. 25 to March 24 in 2013. In that same period, I wrote 460 emails to 199 contacts. Month after month, it's overall setbacks, occasionally interrupted by aberrant small gains.
But on one of those days when "My job is just answering emails" seemed less of a joke and more of a sad fact, my ITworld editor emailed and asked if I was interested in trying one of the site's 7-day experiments. I thought about what a former co-editor at Lifehacker once wrote about training people to properly use your inboxes. Maybe, I thought, if I prove that there are ways to contact me that don't always require a considered response, I can get out from under the email mobster's thumb.
So I went ahead and turned off email for a week. No auto-response message, as with a vacation, just untouched.
I'm not the only person who has temporarily quit email. MG Siegler at TechCrunch lasted one month without most email. Author and premiere self-promoter Tim Ferriss outsources his email, and TWiT network founder Leo Laporte generally can't handle the volume. I used to laugh at the older law partners and executives around town that I know have their emails printed out and prioritized by their secretaries, but now I'm just jealous. It would be hilarious and fascinating to watch humanity's struggle against the strange problem of writing far too many little open-ended novellas to each other -- but only if we could watch it from space, without a data connection.
Did my stint without email have any impact on my email volume? Did it make me happier, more productive, less anxious? Here is my diary of the experience.
March 27 (T-minus 5 days): I email a handful of people I was actively working with (or married to) about the lack of email. I provided many alternatives: text messages and phone calls, Twitter direct mesages, Facebook messages, the collaboration tools Dispatch.io and Basecamp, Skype and Google Talk chat (the latter piped through imo.im), and Hangout and meeting invitations via Google Calendar.
From one editor: "How much do all of us that have to work around your stunt get paid?" (The editor later said he was "mostly teasing," but asked that I include his "cranky editor recalcitrance.")
Another editor: "Shouldn't be a problem. Let's line up work for you before you head off-grid."
"Always happy to have a call from you if that works out.
- Your mother."
An entire discussion on two unrelated matters involving a coworking space of which I am a partner.
This is a fairly accurate microcosm of the email experience: inconveniencing others, a glimpse of consideration and hope, guilt, and left-field matters that quickly lead to many new questions requiring thought and answers. But I was feeling good. I had laid out a time frame, provided detailed alternatives, and put together a consensus. I wish I was as efficient at all my projects.
Into the no-email abyss
March 31 (the night before):
I get down to zero emails. It's the best empty inbox moment I've ever had. The Gmail Offline states that I have "No Conversations." "Ha!" I think. "Conversations! Yes, that is what I am having with all those people I don't know trying to 'connect' on LinkedIn! We are having a conversation! It's a regular ol' My Dinner with Andre up in this inbox!"
I close the laptop lid, start to read a book, and dream of my life being like this: with time and attention judiciously divided into tasks, interests, and enjoyment. What could go wrong?
Day 1 (April 1)
First thing in the morning, knowing that I won't be checking email, I ... instead check Twitter, and Google+, and Facebook, and the local news, and the New York Times. Sometimes the problem isn't that something is so distracting. Sometimes things are distracting because you really don't want to get back to work after a great Sunday.
64 emails missed
Among the unread: A notice that the wife's campaign made a local newspaper, a request to invoice a site I write for, a reminder to sign up for a zombie-themed run in September, and a feedback note about a podcast. Again, I don't know this as it happens, but will find out in later research. The rest came from publications, web applications with New! Features!, and services I have set up to remind me of things (calendar appointments, bills, discussion sites). Some of them are even marked as Priority by Gmail, which is annoying.
After getting used to the idea that not only do I not have to check email, but I don't have anyone left to explain my absence to, I'm starting to feel better. If I know what tasks I have in front of me, it's just my brain, my energy, and my 12 other Chrome tabs that decide how much gets done. Oddly enough, the real benefit is on my phone, not my laptop. I actually moved my Gmail shortcut off my center home screen on my Galaxy Nexus and turned off Gmail synchronization. At least a half-dozen times, I tap my phone's screen on, realize there's no email to be seen, and put it away. It's a really good feeling, even if it's just some digital self-back-patting.
87 emails missed
Had I been watching, I would have learned that "Expensify officially supports Bitcoin for expense report reimbursement!" And that "Tax Freedom Day® Arrives April 18th in 2013!" And now there are these things called "vizcards: a new page for your Vizify bio!" So many exclamation points in my email. I don't think actual humans hardly ever use exclamation points while writing me. I am so close to making an exclamation point filter.
I'm really liking Basecamp for TEDxBuffalo tasks and communication, and because I'm doing some freelance work for the Dispatch team, using Dispatch to communicate with them has been very smooth. Both of these tools actually generate email, unless you tell them not to, and can filter and format responses sent back through email. But use them just as standalone tools, and you train yourself to give proper segments of time to them: "Okay, it is time to open up the TEDxBuffalo Basecamp and see what needs doing there, because I feel like I have 15 minutes to give to it."
I'm using Twitter's direct messaging function quite a bit at this point. The best part about it is that it only works between two people who are following each other, acting as a built-in filter. But one friend reminds me that it's a really crummy way to get things done, in terms of being able to find messages and details later on. Knowing when to keep records is important, just as knowing when something is ephemeral and passive is important, too.
70 emails missed
One from my sister, with a link to a Hulu video from Saturday Night Live, which I do wish I had seen. A few notifications of things going on in communities (local, game, industry). Going through this day now, as I write this, I am obsessively unsubscribing from every public relations/press mailing list, news alert, and whatever else I can. Other people (sometimes in the same agencies) will keep me on their list, and some will just ignore my pleas. There is no real stopping mail you don't care about. There is just figuring out what you want to do with mail you do care about.
I'm starting to feel a bit anxious at this point. I'm definitely opening tabs in Chrome and closing them, realizing that I can't access email. Once you have the email freedom you've been pining for, you also have enough distance from it to appreciate its beneficial qualities--like providing a break from whatever is causing your headaches at the moment.
Speaking of anxiety, why does nobody text me, chat me, or call me, four days after I took a no-email pledge? It seems like communication has, overall, died down. I seriously believe some people are treating this as if I were on vacation. Maybe that's the only way we can collectively deal with someone who's not responding to email and not a cloistered celebrity: assume they're somewhere else. I wish I could say I was really somewhere else.
73 emails missed
Among those messages, oddly enough, is a PR pitch for Unroll.me, which promises to add my email subscriptions to a "Rollup," or aggregate all those non-human updates into one tidy sheet for glimpsing, and also automatically unsubscribe from lists. If nothing else, it's handy for seeing all the things you're subscribed to, in one dashboard. One email that's filled with other emails can sometimes be just as stressful, especially if you can't work with tiny type and images, but Unroll.me is good at keeping you informed on what's coming into your inbox and removing some sources of pain.
I momentarily lapse, because I have to search out at least a dozen emails I labeled as "tax receipt" (though I avoid looking at the actual inbox). And I'm starting to feel serious guilt about my one-way email treaty: I'm not creating or responding to email from inside Gmail, but I'm using apps--Google Drive, Dropbox, Facebook, Basecamp--that are generating a notable amount of the stuff. I feel like someone who sends a housekeeper to the grocery store.
63 emails missed
I miss a last-minute invitation to an interesting event happening the next day. I get a response to a press question I asked a week before.
I have come up with a short list of things I definitely do want to receive, or at least seriously don't mind receiving, via email:
- Receipts for purchases.
- Notifications that bills are due soon.
- Friends, coworkers, and bosses who want to discuss an actual matter with me (though I more and more prefer systems like Basecamp for this sort of thing)
- Emails from myself (because sometimes a "note to self" really is the quickest thing, like, say, when stepping out of a car with a good thought).
25 emails missed
It's nice to know that email creators take it easy on Saturday. Then again, this might explain why people end up working through their inboxes on weekends: it's easier to clean when the shop is closed.
I send out about five emails to editors and project partners who were on the "VIP" list. They are extremely short messages. Even dieters get cheat days, right?
61 emails missed
On a Sunday, I missed out on a blueberry cobbler recipe, a reminder that Mad Men had a season premiere that night, and an invitation to join a neighborhood block club.
Lessons learned: Escaping email by making it important
What did I learn from missing out on 443 emails over 7 days? A few things. One is that I'm subscribed to far too many reminders, agendas, updates, notifications, summaries, connections, invitations, and suggestions. Using unroll.me and unsubscribe links in the messages themselves, I cut back or "rolled up" nearly all of them. I did not miss them at all while I was gone.
I could also do without email alerts from the New York Times. I can activate alerts on the Times' Android app if I really need to know about United Nations arms trade treaties before everyone else in the room.
As noted previously, I get marketing pitches from just a few PR firms, but multiple agents inside those firms. This problem is particular to me, but go ahead and substitute your own "headhunters," "local business and civic organizations," or another human-but-not-quite equivalent. I ask them all to remove me, since I tend to hunt down stories myself. Knowing this is not always successful, I bookmark my friend Gina Trapani's PR blacklist and prepare to implement it, if necessary. I recognize a few names in there.
Finally, I'm doing two crucial things I should have done a long time ago. First, I'm adding those Actual Humans I need to hear from to a "VIP" label. This way, they get to reside in a mental space that has bottle service and valet parking, and I can set my Android phone (and Pebble watch) to receive notifications whenever I get an email from one of those VIPs. It's equally important to set up Gmail to show those VIP emails as starred, important, unread, etc.; I like this explainer on setting up Gmail filters for that purpose.
(iPhone users without label-specific email alerts could consider setting up a rule at IFTTT, in the form of "If Gmail message arrives with label X, send me an SMS/tweet/etc.")
Second, I'm setting three times in the day when I'm going to process email. It's not a religion, and it's not impossible I might scan email during a boring moment, but I plan to only give email 15 minutes of my time three times a day. I'm back on track now to check at 8:45 a.m., 11:45 a.m., and 3:45 p.m., having proven to myself that, most often, crucial things will find me if they can't wait 3 or 4 hours. If an email requires more thought to respond to than the allotted 15 minutes, I will reply that such is the case, and maybe ask to talk it out in some other venue.
Email is great because everybody can reach you for any reason, and that's also what makes email terrible. But if you know that most of the good email that comes through gets your attention, you can rest your mind when it comes to the other stuff. When you get to it, too, you can plow through it quickly, because you can trust that you will notice the difference between "Jim Rogers wants to connect on LinkedIn" and "You are invited to speak, expenses paid, at a conference in Lyon, France."
That's what my week without email taught me. Not that you can really live without email, unless you don't want to deal with humans entirely. But that you can pretty easily put your mind to rest about what's inside your email, once you see what happens when you're not checking it. I feel less stressed now, with my email back in my workflow, than I did when I was without it. I didn't see that one coming.
Author's note: About my absolute fidelity to my no-email rules... from a Monday morning to the next Sunday night, I only looked at about 10 emails, from three or four people. I had tried to avoid email entirely, but there was an editor with some pressing work, and a wife with a non-profit fundraising campaign running, who requested priority access. Many other people had to wait, or come to terms with the obvious conclusion that I wanted disastrous things for them and everyone they knew.