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Big Ideas

How I Gave up Email and Reclaimed 3 Hours a Day

Leave your e-mail inbox behind by moving your communication to collaborative tools and social media.


Most weekends you will find me speeding down a trail on my mountain bike. Bring on the drop offs: I want to jump them; bring on the hops and bounces and falls. I consider myself someone who can handle the things that life throws my way. But there is one thing that raises my anxiety levels into the red zone: email.

One day while driving home, I thought: “Why don’t I just stop using email altogether?” That night while drifting off to sleep I imagined my email-free life. I liked the picture. Within the same week, I made the decision to cut email out of my life.

1. Track your current productivity levels

In order to start this experiment, I needed to track the difference in my productivity levels with and without email. I started my no email journey by installing RescueTime, a tool that tracks your workday activities and calculates a productivity score for you. The system is fully customizable. It took me a few hours to input the online sites and tools that make up my working day. I also inputted all the sites and places that I would deem as distractions. From there I ranked each item on a distraction scale from -2 to +2. I worked in my normal way for one week so that I was able to benchmark, after I implemented changes. My productivity score at the end of the normal week with email was 23 percent.

2. Notify people

I started letting people know about my decision and thought it would be the easiest part of the process. It proved to be the hardest. I put a note on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter to announce my decision. I put an auto-responder on my email which read as follows:

Subject: No More Email

Body: As many of you know, I am on a mission this year to reduce email with the aim of completely removing it out of my life.

My reason for wanting to do this:

  1. I believe it is a time waster.
  2. I believe it sucks people dry of valuable time that could be spent productively working on things they love.
  3. I believe that it is a duplication of all the systems we already use.
  4. It basically serves as a notification system to convey information we already know.

So, please do connect with me in the following places:

  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn

Thanks for helping and if you feel so inclined, I would love for you to join me on this mission of simplifying my space and time.

Kindly,
Claire

The reaction to my decision was interesting: a few people even decided to join me. Others told me that I was mad. And still others had full-on debates with me via Facebook as to all the reasons why moving fromoffe email to other mediums made no sense whatsoever. The most interesting response came from my clients: they were genuinely relieved. My decision meant less email for them to deal with, no matter how small that daily number was in the larger pool of emails they were rummaging through. I felt encouraged. I knew I was on to something.
The most interesting response came from my clients: they were genuinely relieved.

3. Move clients to project management systems

After notifying my clients of my decision, I also explained to them that all work would be moving into a collaborative space. I set up accounts with Huddle, TeamworkPM, Basecamp and Asana. I would’ve preferred to only set up one tool but each of these platforms offers something unique that my respective clients needed. In order to not cause too much disruption, I decided I needed to meet the client where they were on tools they already used. The primary goal of these systems was to reduce the email deluge, and they did, because email notifications from the system can be controlled. I also trained my clients to classify their communications as follows:

  • Day to day discussions that do not need to be retained for future reference
  • Important information that needs to be referenced over and again by team members
  • Information that needs to to move to a task list because it requires specific action

Each of the project tools addresses these three types of communication very well. The message sections are suitable for day-to-day discussions. Important information that the team needs to refer back to over and over should always be documented in whiteboards and notebooks which are easily accessible, and any information that relates to tasks should always be managed in the task section of the project tools.

With the exception of one client based in South Africa, a country which still struggles with broadband speed, every single client made the transition with ease and all of them have subsequently implemented the same tools into their own businesses.

All the project tools allow for document sharing and Huddle also allows for online editing which means that documents do not need to be downloaded and uploaded all the time.

The Results: Benefits and a Changing Work Day   

The transition was far easier than I expected and what surprised me most was how relieved clients were to make the change with me. The greatest benefits that I have found include:

  • I have reclaimed on average three hours of every working day.
  • I am able to get home and switch off. I cook, exercise and read at night which I love doing and I do all these things guilt free.
  • I no longer start the day with email. Instead, I open the project tool belonging to the client who I will be giving my attention to for that day,
  • I no longer experience the compulsive need to empty out my inbox all the time.
  • I handle less than 10 emails per day.
  • At the end of every day, I write down my task list for the following day. After this, I open my email and clear it out using the file, action, delete principle. This never takes more than 20 minutes.
  • I no longer have to waste time searching for attachments and information within emails because it is all contained within the files and whiteboard or notebook sections of the project tools.
  • I no longer have file sharing problems because the files are accessible anytime, anywhere. With TeamworkPM, I also have Dropbox integrated which means that file sharing is even more simplified.
  • I no longer have lengthy team meetings via Skype or in person. I have educated my clients to start the week off with a Monday morning check-in where one strategic issue is discussed and all team members give a quick breakdown of what they will be doing for the coming week.
  • Meetings, when they do happen, are now happening in a collaborative space and I have noticed that people have become more accountable.
  • Managing overall performance is easier for me because with a very quick glance the entire team’s performance can be seen. This makes identifying bottlenecks much easier.
  • I no longer need to email and request progress reports from individual people. The system shows me where people need help due to slipping deadlines or where some employees do not have enough work.
  • Because full teams are collaborating in one space, I have found that cross pollination of ideas and understanding of different work streams has increased because people are exposed to what other team members are doing.
  • I no longer multitask as I did before. I open one project tool at a time and give that client my full attention before moving to the next.
  • People who work with me have a realistic time frame in mind when they can expect communication back from me because I have communicated to them what days of the week belong to them and their project.
  • My productivity score has gone from 23 percent when I was using email as my primary communication tool, to 68 percent over a period of 10 months.


Exceptions to My “No Email” Strategy

Some people are not fazed by an inbox with 16,000 emails in it so this type of project might be a bigger anxiety that your inbox. Also, for people who do not deal with large volumes of email, my system will also not be as applicable.

Of course my email accounts are still in use for verification purposes when I am signing up to online tools and software. I also receive receipts from online purchases via email and my website does have my email address for first time clients. Rather than cut it out completely, it would be fair to say that I have found a way to tame, reduce, and manage it – and I plan on continuing working this way for the foreseeable future. It’s been a very worthwhile journey.

How about you?

Is email volume and management an issue to you? What measures have you put in place to ease the pain?

More Posts by Claire Haidar

Claire Haidar is a productivity specialist who heads up the international company Get Organised in Ireland. Connect with her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Comments (95)
  • Joel Marsh

    I read this article, but I am not getting the same conclusion as you. You seem to be saying that email was ruining your life… but I’m reading about how a massive re-organization of your workflow was beneficial.

    You didn’t eliminate email (you still handle 10 per day). You integrated at least 8 other tools and services to divide your work and communications into more manageable, relevant locations. And you had honest communication with your clients and your teams instead of just being frustrated about it, silently.

    I don’t think email was your problem. I think you just needed some serious effort on self-organization and personal relationships, and it worked like a charm!

    🙂

  • Ann Kroeker

    I’ve thought a lot about your decision, being someone who had to adjust to your decision. I’ve tried to figure out how this might work for me, and personally–keep in mind I am considerably older than you–I like some items alerting me via e-mail so that I avoid the very thing you have chose to do: log into multiple project management programs. To me, that is far more time consuming and cumbersome to manage and keep up with. At the moment, I am involved in several teams unrelated to one another; as a result, I now have four different systems to log in and out of. I find that much harder to keep up with than quickly scanning an email that alerts me to check in.

  • Ann Kroeker

    I guess in brief, email remains my preferred method of consolidating communication from multiple sources.

  • Etienne Douaze

    Replacing email with FOUR project management systems? I don’t know…

  • Claire

    Interesting perspective Joel.

    I was highly organized within the email system that I had set up prior to this change and I was able to handle it very well. I organized my inbox according to folders and used the task and flagging systems very effectively.

    My clients and employees were in fact the ones that started complaining first about the overload and overwhelm they experienced due to email. I ignored it at first but when the complaints became more frequent and I started seeing more and more email complaints during my initial assessments with clients, I realised that this was serious and needed to be looked at.

    On a weekly basis, I come across clients who deal with inboxes that have between 3000 to 19 000 unread emails! It is listed as the no 1 distractor in our productivity assessment that all my clients do. That says something!

    As I have uncovered this issue further over the last year with clients, I am realising that it is a problem that manifests itself very strongly in certain industries namely: production, manufacturing and professional services. Generally speaking people in these industries are not very tech savvy and have not previously had to deal with the large volumes of information that many people in tech environments have already gotten used to.

    So I see your point that there is more to this than email but I need to emphasise that in my experience, email is where the issue manifests itself.

  • Claire

    Etienne I hear you. I really do. If I had it my way, all my clients would be using Teamworkpm (for smaller businesses) or Podio (for larger businesses) but unfortunately different project tools meet different needs. Improving systems within my client’s businesses is my primary objective. This is the only reason I have to work across a broad spectrum of tools.

  • Claire

    Early on in this journey, I found a few other people who made the same decision:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06

    http://reesenewslab.org/2011/0

  • Claire

    Hi Ann, thanks for sharing your perspective: one I deeply respect because you are the organised person that you are.

    Do you feel that age plays a factor here? If so, why?

  • Julie

    I was one of the people who was definitely quite confused and surprised when I got that autoresponder! My first thought was “but you get email notifications from activity on all the platforms so what’s really changing?” but over time, the separation of communications that are purely personal, from messages requiring actions, and also the storing of information that needs to be retained in the most appropriate place, that’s when it started making much more sense.

    If you’re the sort of person who wants to handle absolutely everything at the same time, I can see how having projects in different systems might not make sense – but if you’re having trouble actually giving 100% concentration to a particular project at any time, it encourages you to switch off from everything but the one you’re working on right now – and that’s definitely something I could do with!

    I don’t know if I’d go as far as trying to get away from email to this extent, but I definitely see the benefit of getting the right data into the right place for its purpose…

  • Tracey Foulkes

    Aaah, the ongoing email saga. Assuming you are disciplined and manage it well, it can be a super productive tool. I love the way that everything runs from one central place and saves having to log into different platforms like Huddle, Teamworkpm etc.

    That said, and after at least 2 years of being shoved by my clients into researching ways for them to better manage communication (mainly internal email) without email, I am now exploring Teamworkpm as an alternative solution.

    1 Week in and I am not yet ready to press ‘go’: reading the ‘messages’ are the same (in my opinion) as reading and responding to emails from my Outlook. The benefit however lies more in working with categorised notebooks which means now that email (or their version “messages”) and project notes, brainstorms, thoughts, ideas, collective actions are all in one place. It helps with idea and progress tracking, team collaboration and accountability and that I like. Essentially, I’d be moving from working with email from my Outlook to working with ‘messages’ on a central platform from where supporting documents can also be stored.

    Will I take the plunge and mail my clients and colleagues that I’m on an email strike … not yet. But who knows, there is always maybe 😉

  • Lyla Lindquist

    I’m impressed with the way you’ve been able to manage this change, and bring others along with you on it. A system such as Basecamp has particular advantages, and I won’t argue that from my experience with it. (Although, as you know, there are times I think Basecamp should be jettisoned in favor of a real-time phone call. Same goes for email, actually.) I really think (and you addressed this in a way in your last paragraph) that it will depend on the user.

    In one of my businesses, my clients are large corporations with multiple offices nationwide, working with multiple contractors. To suggest that I would no longer communicate with them by email would mean the loss of business from every one of them. They don’t need to care that I might prefer to communicate by another means. In another business, my clients are individuals, who are also not inclined to adopt another means of communication in order to accommodate my preference, and to add another layer of communication to their own process would be another death knell for getting work in the door. In order to get work, I need to keep open the path of least resistance for my client

    And I think that’s a lot of it right there–who has to accommodate whom? Can I find a way to better manage my own incoming in order to best serve my clients? (Recognizing this is different for you, when your role with them is to help them find the tools that will best help them. Even so, I think it’s important to offer a client the best means of communication for their good, not my own.) What’s most crucial for me is to recognize that email is a necessary part of my business(es), and how I can best manage it for optimum productivity.

    Moving business conversations into social media venues runs risks all its own, particularly in a highly regulated business such as the one in which I function. (I can’t quite fathom sharing sensitive investigative material with a client even via the private messaging functions of a social media platform. *evil grin*)

    Great stuff to think about, Claire, depending on one’s particular circumstance.

  • Ann Kroeker

    I’m sure more than age is at play here–as is personality, industry, and location in the world, among other things. But my 40-something friend asked her 20-something college-aged daughter why she didn’t send an email about a certain topic to her contacts, and her daughter said, “Mom, none of my friends use email. We’re all on Facebook and Twitter.” The daughter went on to say that only older people use email these days. Similarly, my 20-something niece also said that she only has e-mail because she’s a grad student and the professors and older colleagues communicate via e-mail. She has to have it for those academic interactions. Otherwise, her communication is all social network based for friends (or texting). So, that’s why I’ve assumed age may play a part in this.

    I’m 40-something, and many of my similar-aged friends only use e-mail for communication (these friends don’t use social networks at all), so if I eliminated email, the only way I could communicate with them would be to phone them, which is pleasant, but requires a lot more time.

    Another reason I like the consolidation of communication via e-mail is because I am not always at a computer–I’m often out and about, and logging in and out of these project management systems (like I said, I must access four different systems for the various groups I’m involved in) on my phone is far more cumbersome than simply checking e-mail to see what response is needed.

  • GB Jenkins

    I introduced a three folder email system in my latest job (Archive, follow up and hold) and it’s made such a huge difference in managing my time, both for organising incoming mail and for finding it later on. I’m not sure I’m quite ready to give up email yet but some of my social media could probably go. I’ve been thinking of closing my facebook account for a while. Maybe it’s time.

  • percevalve

    Claire, which one is you favorite : Teamworkpm ? Also have you tried dispatch.io ? It seems to me a good alternative to internal communication, but I have not been using it a lot.

  • Cumulo7

    Wow fantastic. I’ve been feeling over the last week that i spend to much time on email, but mostly for inspiration emails. Wouldn’t it make sense to still have email as an option, You do get alerts after all. Just use it when needed. I’m going to start canceling my subscriptions and just follow on twitter now.

  • Carlos Garcia-Hoz

    Making it home and being able to switch off without feeling guilty is not a matter of email but of personal attitude.

    In this days, we need to educate ourselves in the use of technology. And we need to learn to prioritize the areas that are important to us.

    I love speeding down trails on MTB, too. 🙂

  • Claire

    Makes perfect sense. I agree that more than age is at play especially when you start taking location, broad band speed, wireless access etc into account as well.

    I tested a product called Nimble out last year which I liked very much. What I hear you saying is that you need a centralised location which is something that came up in a Facebook post about this article and in Julie’s comment in this thread as well. Nimble does that brilliantly. It streams all your communication, across all platforms into one centralised dashboard. Unfortunately it does not solve your individual project tool dilemma.

    Check it out if you want:http://www.nimble.com/how-it-w

  • Claire

    Totally agree Carlos: we all have the power to choose how and where we spend our time. As for mountain biking … nothing quite beats it! 😉

  • Claire

    Excellent starting point: I recommend unsubscribing from all email newsletters as the first productivity point with my clients. I also use an app called Pocket to manage my online reading. I save all articles to pocket and on a Friday, I set aside time to do 2-3 hours of business reading. The reason for this set-aside time is because this allows me to also implement action plans based on my reading. That way, I am not only reading but I am making changes based on what I am reading which is the vital part.

    Check out Pocket: http://getpocket.com/

  • Claire

    Interesting approach.

    Did everything come into your inbox and you then manually placed it in the relevant folder or did you set up rules to do this?

    What were your criteria for the ‘hold’ folder?

  • Claire

    I recommend Teamworkpm to teams of 10 or less, especially if they plan to remain a small to medium sized business. Podio is an excellent tool for a company with serious growth plans. I recommend it to high tech companies wanting to expand rapidly. It forms an excellent back bone to any company wanting to sell out. The sooner these types of companies get onto a tool like Podio, the better.

    As for Dispatch, I like it as a tool because it is very niche in my opinion. It is able to achieve, very effectively, what it sets out to do. In my opinion, this is creating traceable, highly visible communication threads but it is not flexible enough to solve the problem of managing a team beyond communication. I could be wrong, I just haven’t seen it being applied this way sustainably. The tools I recommend above achieve both: communication tracking and team/project management.

  • Claire

    You make a very interesting point here Julie. It is one that has come up repeatedly over the past two days within Facebook and in this thread. Some people like managing things from a central point, others prefer demarcated areas. This is an important preference to know.

    Based on work that I have done with clients, I know that very few people are able to handle the continuous inflow of information into a central place: it is a major distractor and what many people don’t realise is that each time they leave a task, and then try to come back to it, they waste on average 20 minutes, trying to refocus their minds. If one starts counting up those hours every day, it puts a different slant on a centralised place.

  • Claire

    Tracey I have always liked and seriously cheered on your maybe’s : )

  • Claire

    I hear you Lyla. My mom works in the aerospace industry with highly classified information so you can imagination the huge debate we had when she got my auto-responder for the first time. : )

    As I was saying on Twitter yesterday: the larger question I am asking is: fax replaced post, email replaced fax. What will replace email and are we ready for the transition because my gut is that it is coming sooner than we think.

    But as you rightly pointed out on Twitter: post never truly became redundant and it still serves a purpose. Will email possibly be the same?

    Thanks for the great insights. I love debating with you because you help me to take my thoughts to the next stage.

  • GB Jenkins

    Hi Claire. It’s manual. I think I’d picked up the technique from lifehacker. Archive’s fairly straight forward. Follow up contains emails I need to respond to (or need to action – it’s a bit of a to do list). The hold folder is for email’s I need to keep ready to hand but don’t involve an action from me at this time. The best example would be if you’ve received an email but have forwarded it to a colleague or client for comment before you action what’s in the email. It’s basically on hold until they get back to you.

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