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

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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.

Are you living in a way today that will help you thrive tomorrow? If not, why not? Click To Tweet

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.


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.

If you spend 2 hours a day on email, you lose one workweek every month. Click To Tweet

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.

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

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.

Most of what seems important...isn't. Click To Tweet

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.

When you stop sending email, you stop getting email. How glorious is that? Click To Tweet

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?


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.

If you don't run your life, other people will. Click To Tweet

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.

A buzzing phone is not a sign of a busy leader, it's a sign of an unproductive leader. Click To Tweet

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.

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

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.

Not everything is urgent, so don't treat it like it is. Click To Tweet

Can't find the time to get it all done? Become a high-impact leader without burning out (or sacrificing yourself).

Without a new strategy and approach, it's easy to continue to:

  • Sacrifice family on the altar of work
  • Overcommit and underdeliver
  • Have no time for what you actually want to do
  • Struggle to get time off to refuel and relax

Worst of all, other people—other tasks, jobs, and projects—will continue to hijack your life.

It’s time to change that by implementing a strategy that works.

At Your Best is a proven strategy to get your time, energy, and priorities working in your favor. It's my step-by-step online course that will help you overcome stress, find a sustainable pace without losing impact, and be far more productive at work.

50,000+ leaders have used the At Your Best strategy to escape the stress spiral and finally do what they want to do—grow their organizations, advance their careers, launch new ventures, be far more present at home, and take regular time off.

Wow! I didn’t realize I was in desperate need of this message and system in my life and business. 

This message so profoundly impacted us, that we named our annual company theme, “At Our Best,” using Carey’s system and resources to strengthen our culture and make health a priority this year.”

Sean CannellFounder and CEO, Think Media

Whatever you choose to do with it is up to you. Join today for instant access.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.