If you ask me how many times a day I check my email, my answer would be ‘one’. The entire day…
“So you only check your inbox once a day and stopped replying by email?” my manager asks me, looking completely confused. “Yes”, I answer after I figure she must have received my out of office reply to an email she send me.
“For more than a week I stopped sending email —something no one noticed at first— and I thought it was about time people knew.” The look on her face got even more confused. “Shall we have a cup of coffee then?” I ask with a careful smile on my face.
The email-diet: How it all started
In my former day job as a safety advisor, I received 150 emails a day. I spend 3 to 4 hours of my day trapped inside my inbox. And if I was not sitting at my computer, I checked my smartphone almost continuously.
One morning, I imagined being 80 years old. I asked myself: What did I contribute? What did other people notice of my years of hard work?
I saw myself being a rockstar in answering email. An elite force in attending countless meetings. And sadly, that would be about it. Something I couldn’t let happen.
After some thinking, I looked at the way we use email. In ten minutes I figured out how email works. And it’s pretty simple: The more you send, the more you receive.
This observation led to another question: What if I did the opposite? If I send less, will I receive less?
Almost three years ago, I started an experiment: A 30 day ‘email-diet’.
An experiment to find out:
What happens if I check email once a day for half an hour, and allow myself to only send 3 emails a day?
The first 30 days: From FOMO to changing the way I work
It’s 11.00am. I’ve resisted the urge to check my inbox close to 143 times this morning. Finally I get to open Outlook. 156 new messages. And I only get to answer 3 by email? This is madness, I remember myself thinking. Complete madness.
But after a few days, my FOMO — Fear Of Missing Out — fades. I notice I get creative in how I communicate. I have no choice. The experiment forces me to get creative. This, is in retrospect one of the most valuable benefits. Other observations and lessons include:
- Now I check my inbox only once a day, a lot of email does not need a reply anymore. Issues are already solved. Mostly, just by ignoring them. Also, a big chunk of the messages aren’t urgent, and don’t need a reply right away (or at all), despite others pretending so. These realizations made me aware of how we keep each other busy.
- Another game changer is a shift in how I handle incoming messages. Instead of automatically hitting ‘reply’, I pause for a moment and ask myself ‘what is the best way to solve this?’. This small distinction — between not only answering, but thinking about how do I solve ‘x’ — eliminates the back and forth email conversations that look more like a game of pointless ping pong.
- The 80/20 principle applies: Over 65% of the email I receive, is send by only 6 people. In the second week, I meet with every one of them and have coffee. We talk over how we communicate. In just 30 minutes each, we make new working agreements we both like. Such as what to do when an emergency arises. Result: a lot less email (quantity), a lot more satisfaction (quality).
- As the 30 days pass by, I talk with a lot of people. Real conversations. Face to face. On how we collaborate. A broad topic everyone seems to find important, and have a huge variety of opinions about. With every conversation, I get more confident in how to express what I mean, in asking questions, and I get more and more curious on the perspective of others. A big boost for something I now know is immensely important in a digital world: social skills.
- Because I don’t want to be on the phone or walking around the office the whole day, I start to explore new digital collaboration tools like Trello, Facebook groups, Asana, Basecamp, and later Slack. In small groups I endorse others to test these tools with me. By investing time in figuring out how these tools work, so I can explain them to others, my digital skills and teaching skills improve. I still reap the benefits of this every single day.
Post-experiment: A life without email
After the 30 days were over — and incoming email dropped from 150 to around 25 a day — I saved 3 hours. Daily. That’s right, 3 hours a day. That’s 15 hours a week! And I never had so much fun doing my job.
In this month I also finished five big projects that were on my to do list for over six months. How did this happen? By checking email at 11am, every morning, I have 3 hours to work on what I find important. Without getting distracted — and turning reactive — by what others think is important for me. Because as a professional you are capable of deciding for yourself what to work on.
What happened after the 30 days?
I decided to follow through and quit email completely.
Take responsibility and challenge assumptions
As I explain in my TED-talk, it’s not about quitting email. It’s about challenging assumptions. One little assumption: If I send less, will I receive less?
Quitting email will not solve your problems. It won’t automatically better your life. You have to take responsibility and start yourself. What is most valuable is the process: To experiment, reflect, learn, adjust and continue to do so.
For me, challenging this one little assumption ended up changing my life. Four months later I did my 40 hour full-time job in only 10 hours a week. Funny sidenote, the evaluation reports made by the partners I worked with, were higher than the year before.
Eight months later I quit my job. Now I’m self-employed and found myself a new endeavor: To work at 80 different companies, organizations, charities and brands around the world.
So, what are you going to do?
In closing, with every change — be it quitting email or traveling the world — there are broadly two types of responses I encounter.
The first, “It’s nice it works for you, and by the way, I really want to do the same, but for me it’s just impossible, because [insert doubtful explanation]…”
The second, “Awesome, can you help me get started, because I’m curious what it will do for me?”
The question I have for you, after reading this blog is simple: To which group do you belong?
If you want to share your thoughts, tips, have questions or just want to reach out: use the comments below or send me a personal message
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