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.

Gmail account activity report on email

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.

The responses:

  • 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?

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