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No More Email: A Productivity Experiment That’s Paying Off

email

How are you doing, really?

I think if you really drilled down, you’re likely more tired, stressed and frustrated than you even realize. I get there as a leader, and as regular readers know, 11 years ago I burned out.

Since then, I’ve been on a passionate quest first, to live in a way today to that will help me thrive tomorrow. And second, to help every leader I know do the same.

Burn out stinks. And I’m increasingly convinced that many people live in a state of low-grade burnout, not really crashing but never thriving. They live life in a state of discouragement, fatigue and muted hope.

I’ve created a new way of leveraging my time, energy and priorities so I can do less and accomplish more. I recently shared those principles in the High Impact Leader Course, which will open again for new registrations in late 2017. (You can get on the waiting list here.)

I love the summer because I usually experiment with my schedule and life to see if I can make further improvements.

This summer I tried three things. I jumped off email entirely for 3 weeks, experimented with what I call deep resting (explanation to follow) and ditched watching TV and movies. I’ll talk about deep resting and abandoning TV and movies some other time, but let me talk about ditching email here.

All of it is an attempt to help me live today in a way that will help me thrive tomorrow.

Here’s what I’m learning.

Can You Live Without Email?

I am increasingly convinced that unless you work in an Executive Assistant or similar position, email can be a colossal time waster and energy sucker for most leaders.

If I’m not careful, I can spend up to half my day on email. And, with this, I’m sure you can resonate: those are never great days. I finish the day drained and wondering what on earth I accomplished, which is usually not much.

In the High Impact Leader Course, I teach leaders to schedule email to a small window each day in which their energy is already low. Until recently, I checked email in the morning only to see if anything was truly urgent and then replied to most things later in the day when my energy was naturally lower, so I could throw my best energy into my writing (which is the most important thing I do).

This summer, I took it a step further. I just wrapped up a 30-day email experiment that I’m extending another 30 days.

The experiment? I didn’t touch email at all for 3 weeks, and last week I reduced email to approximately 2 hours for the week. Not two hours a day. Two hours for the entire week.

I was off email for three weeks when I was on vacation. You’re probably thinking “well, of course, you were on vacation.”

But I used to be horrible at checking email throughout my vacation. I still get auto-responders from other leaders who say they’re on vacation but will be checking email daily.

Kiss A Workweek Goodbye

So how did I kill email for 21 days?

Two ways. First—and this is a BIG condition—I have an assistant. I realize not all of you have an assistant. But I gave my EA completely control of all my emails, including my personal private email. I didn’t jump in once.

Second, I set up on auto-responder that said I was away for 3 weeks, that my assistant would be checking in during my absence AND that if it was important, to re-email me after X date.

So what happened?

After the three weeks was over, there were only 7 emails that needed my attention. That’s it. Sarah, my assistant, had handled everything else. And the rest wasn’t that important.

know I would have spent 1-3 hours a day in my inbox had I been working as normal. Those 7 emails took me less than 30 minutes to respond to.

So let’s say I would have spent 2 hours a day in my inbox if it was business as usual. That means I would have spent 42 hours on email. That’s an ENTIRE NORMAL WORKWEEK on email in a three-week window. If you take two days off a week from email, you still lose an entire workweek every month on email.

Yikes.

And guess what, I’m guessing it didn’t take Sarah 42 hours to answer the emails? Why? Because she’s better at it than I am. She actually answers all of my inboxes and does far more working half-time for me. (I talk to Sarah about our working relationship here.)

So, the experiment continues.

Last week was my first week back and I decided to only check email a few times in the entire week. I had Sarah vet my private inbox first and then I went in and responded as I needed to. I spent less than 2 hours on email. So that’s a saving of 12 hours last week alone.

I’m actively wondering whether I can get off email entirely. I’m not sure.

But here are some things I’ve noticed.

The results?

a. My Head is Clearer

My head seems much clearer being out of email than in email. I’m writing a book, and long form thinking requires clear open space to pull ideas together.

The clutter and clatter of email are so distracting.

If your job is to be in the weeds and details of everything, then email may be a great companion for you. That’s not my job. My calling involves creating amazing message series, writing, blogging, podcasting, speaking and planning at the 30,000-foot level. The weeds are my enemy.

Leaders who let small things consume them will never think big.

b. Most of What Seems Important…Isn’t

Ever notice that everything in email world seems important?

It’s not. Or least not nearly as important as it seems in the moment. I was off for 3 weeks. During those three weeks I was writing a book, finalizing the contract with my publisher, restructuring my team and company, up next for a brand new series at Connexus where I serve, and due to speak at a major national conference.

I handled everything when I got back in seven emails and a few phone calls.

All the rest was just noise. And the big stuff wasn’t as complicated as it seems.

c. When You Stop Sending Email You Stop Getting Email

I was amazed after the first week off how quiet things got, for me and for Sarah.

When you stop sending email, you stop getting email. Think about that.  The more you send, the more you receive.

You’re creating a lot of your own pain.

Principles for Everyone: (i.e. So What If You Have No Assistant?)

Look, I get that many of you don’t have an assistant. I realize that living without email entirely is probably not realistic (although I do dream of that day).

So let’s say you’re not the senior leader and don’t have as much control over your life as I do. Let’s assume you have no assistant. And let’s assume that if you abandon email somebody will fire you.

Is there anything you can learn or experiment with?

Absolutely.

Even if you reduce the amount of time spent on email, it will boost your productivity and probably your happiness. So here are some tips.

1. Turn Off All Notifications

Unless you work for the CIA or you’re a fire-fighter, you probably don’t need to be notified every time someone emails you.

I’m also pretty sure fire-fighters don’t get fire notifications by email either.

A few years ago I started turning off all notifications on my phone. Now, 90% of my time, I have my phone on ‘do-not-disturb.’ The only notifications that come through are text and phone call, and even then, sometimes I’ll shut those off for hours at a time and check in when I want a break.

Why should you do that?

Because if you don’t, you won’t run your life, other people will.

When your phone is buzzing all day long, you end up being so distracted most of the time that you can’t think.

It used to be a badge of honor to be so busy you can’t think.

Not anymore.

A constantly buzzing phone is not a sign of a busy leader, it’s a sign of an unproductive leader.

2. Limit Email to A Small Window of Time

If you can’t totally escape email, limit it.

Try doing a small window of say 15 minutes in the morning to make sure nothing’s on fire. 90% of the time, things aren’t on fire.

Then come back to email at a set time later in the day and pound through it. Do it when your energy is a little lower, and spend your best energy instead on the tasks that are most important for you that day.

That way when you get home, you’ll have accomplished something significant and not spend your time on things that matter less.

The less time you spend on email, the less it will consume you.

3. Don’t Handle Everything By Email

Most office cultures default to email to handle almost all issues.

As a result, your passion and energy drown in a sea of reply-alls.

Here’s how it happens. Someone thinks of an issue, so they send an email. Someone adds a thought, and they reply all.

A conversation that might take 5 minutes in person (or less) drags on a through a series of useless replies that go on for days.

We’ve adopted some practices on my team that have helped.

First, don’t email people about everything. If you have an issue that could be just as easily handled by phone or in person, park it on a list (use something like Asana or Wunderlist to keep track).

Then, once you have a list of 5-15 items, do a simple 15 minute check-in phone meeting or stand-up meeting in person to handle them all. You’ll be way more efficient.

Similarly, if a direct report emails me something that’s not urgent, I’ll just ask them to wait until our weekly meeting with it. It can almost always wait.

If it’s truly urgent and there will be a lot of back and forth, pick up and phone and call or do a quick text exchange. People are always shorter on text than on email.

Not everything is urgent, so don’t treat it like it is.

Any Thoughts?

The experiment continues for me. I’m still writing a book for another month and I’ll be limiting my email access to a few hours a week max.

What are you learning about email? What’s helped you?

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11 Comments

  1. Daniel Skokan on August 2, 2017 at 1:05 pm

    Thank you Carey. Im from Czech Republic. Since we are one of the most atheistic countries according WP there is not many lical resources. So I relay more on international ones. And yours honestly is among few most helpfull Inclzdung this post. Thanks a lot! Daniel

  2. Dan Foster on July 29, 2017 at 1:00 pm

    Love that I got to this from my email. 🙂 Nice advice here, thanks much!

  3. Cindy on July 29, 2017 at 9:14 am

    I love this. I’m in the process of training a ministry assistant and considering how to build this into the work she does. Do you have an autoresponder that lets people know that your assistant is checking and responding to your email?

  4. Kenny Conley on July 29, 2017 at 8:56 am

    That’s incredible. The last 3-4 summers, I’ve taken extended time off (anywhere from 3-8 weeks) and I’ll verify something that you said is true. I’ll put up an autoresponder saying that I’m out, I’ll redirect them to my staff listing their names, roles and email addresses and lastly, I’ll say that due to the heavy load of incoming emails, emails received while I’m away will not be read. They’re encouraged to resend the email when I return.

    Every time I’ve come back from one of these extended times away, I’ve been surprised by the number of emails in my inbox. I’d expect thousands and find 100-200 instead (most of them unimportant). I’ve found that when people know you’re out, they stop emailing you. Also, I think it’s true that when you stop emailing – the email essentially stops coming. You’re right, we are our own worst problem. LOL. This is good stuff, Carey! Thanks so much!

  5. Jack on July 29, 2017 at 8:18 am

    The most important question is how’d you get 21 days off!!!!! LOL. Great stuff.

  6. Tamara Wenham on July 26, 2017 at 10:23 am

    I love the idea of quarantining some time in the day to focus just on emails. It’s a discipline that is worth practicing – and it does take practice!
    My team uses Slack as a substitute for email where ideas I thought you were looking at the movie tomorrow. to be shared or small issues need attention from a group or individual. Stand up meetings or phone calls don’t always work if your team members are spread across locations as mine are so we use Slack just to dip in to the pool of shared knowledge and you know you’ll get an answer when it’s convenient.
    You talked about askung people to bring non urgent items to regular meetings. I am also trying to encourage team members to draft emails with the key required action at the top. It saves so much reading time when triaging the urgent ones!

  7. Karl Peterson on July 25, 2017 at 8:47 am

    Thanks for the post. I appreciate your thoughts on email and productivity. While we were gone with our students at camp for a week I didn’t check my email and had a similar experience. I did miss 1 important email but that was it.

    I am interested in knowing if you have used tools like slack or Microsoft teams to communicate and stay in touch? How do important dates and information get shared across your church staff? If someone misses a meeting is there a way they are filled in in important information?

  8. Rex Moncrief on July 25, 2017 at 12:49 am

    Well – I have to confess. I’ve been away from your podcast and newsletter for a while. Then miraculously, THIS is the post I clicked on from Twitter. It’s EXACTLY what I needed to read.

    Truthfully, in my business I rely on email (and actually get paid for some of it … but … I need to be more efficient and gain some tome back.

    Kudos for the timely article. 😀👍

  9. A.J. Platt on July 24, 2017 at 9:28 pm

    Great article! I’m the lead pastor of a nondenominational church in Youngstown, Ohio and I feel like your stuff is always helpful and on point for church leadership, so thanks for writing! I set my cell phone to silent a couple of years ago and it has significantly changed my life for many of the reasons you stated above. Have a great week Carey!

  10. stephen on July 24, 2017 at 12:28 pm

    A great post, with some great points. I would be interested to hear your thoughts regarding social media as well and being connected.

  11. Marcia Cramsey on July 24, 2017 at 9:54 am

    Thank you for this! A great reminder to not allow energy drainers like email to take over the best part of my day where I should be doing what God has called me to do – which is writing and preparing to coach others. I don’t think I can eliminate email from my life, but I can reserve it for a few hours a week – once a week even! I’m going to try that! 🙂

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