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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)
  • GB Jenkins

    And I’m closing my Facebook account later today.

  • percevalve

    Claire, Thanks a lot for your reply ! There is a lot of useful information there.

  • Baronne Mouton

    Interesting – I know a large IT company who have plans to drop email

  • Dayna @kaleidoscopebrain

    Really interesting… I’m not sure if I’d want to do this myself, for a variety of reasons, but I respect your dedication to ‘purge’

  • Claire

    Hi Baronne. Interesting. Am I allowed to ask which company?

  • Claire

    Dayna, out of interest for the sake of others reading this thread, can I ask what your reasons are? Many of the conversations over on Facebook have shown that people like using their inbox as ‘central station’ if you will: that one place where it all happens from. Wondering if you feel the same?

  • Dayna @kaleidoscopebrain

    My reasons: Mostly that the majority of my time consuming email is from people I’m managing, asking for help or explanation on a project, or for people that assign me work. I read the email, start to complete the task or the reply, then must go on to something else because its taking too long, etc. Then I have to return to the email, and as you said, although it may not take me the full 20 minutes, takes some time to re-focus. I also find, of course, a lot of my personal email extremely time consuming (friends writing me letters and such. And there’s also shutting off (or keeping, on the rare occasion, and reading) the newsletters from companies, services, etc.
    Firstly, I think that if these were switched to other services, I doubt that it would take less time to go through them. I agree, as Julie said above, that not having a centralized location would probably help things, but I think I would just start keeping 5 different tabs open with each of the different services, so I didn’t miss any replies. I was thinking that perhaps using folders differently and more effectively (thinking of them as separate entities…?) within gmail could maybe separate the information enough to become approachable, but would allow you the ease of having everything sent to one central location (which I totally agree, i think feels overwhelming)

  • polloshermanos

    No self respecting teenager uses email any more… it’s become just an account verification tool, as you suggest.

  • Drake Pruitt

    Claire, I love the determination to drive total quality of life and work product as motivators for making a change. I performed a similar inventory, for similar reasons, and made significant changes in my communication tethers to the outside world. The only difference, is that I found my social graph to be the un-productive/intrusive media, and have since redoubled my use of email, not the other way around.

    I still use and very much enjoy Twitter, as I learn from it daily. It also presents a news feed that has replaced blogs in many ways. However, I’ve notified friends and LinkedIn counterparts that I’m not actively communicating through those services. The two main reasons for me are that ‘the feed’ for each is a mix of social, personal, news updates, and self-promotion that causes a low-level of distraction– like the question of having to “Like” birthday events b.c. Facebook has put them there. Also, as each has begun to drive more advertising, the level of white noise distraction is going up.

    I guess the final analysis was that I’m not learning from Facebook and LinkedIn, so they are not helping me in my line of work.

    To make email more liveable, I’ve installed several helpful tools and extensions that make parsing, prioritizing, and managing the flow of email a lot easier. I have my priorities in mind at all times, so intrusions don’t really create much of a challenge. I mark them for later follow up (and sometimes not at all).

    I’ve also learned to stay out of email when I am doing other work. It has helped re-train my staff and others to get help elsewhere or more commonly, solve the problem themselves. Being continuously available can sometimes become a crutch for others; that’s not helping them, or you.

    Cheers, and thanks for sharing your experience.

  • Claire Burge

    Love the self-respecting disclaimer 😉

  • Claire Burge

    Makes a lot of sense, if people have the know-how and patience to set up a good folder system.

  • CSX321

    When I finally gave up Outlook and switched to only using Gmail, it was a revelation. It took a while to get used to the idea of not having folders, but I’ve now come to find the Gmail label system to be much, much better. Because Gmail’s search is so fast and so good, I’ve found labels far more useful than sticking messages in folders. I have a variety of automatic rules that apply labels to certain messages, and of course you can apply multiple labels to a single message. I’m one of those people who have always kept, or tried to keep, my inbox empty, so it seems that makes me different from just about anybody else I know.
    I use Gmail to handle mail for my company’s domain, and my personal mail is forwarded there. I realize some people don’t want to trust their messages to Google, but I’ve been willing to do it for the great benefit Gmail has brought me. The tight Android integration is another great bonus.

  • JCW

    Ironic that I heard about this article via email. I use all those online solutions when appropriate, just as I use email when appropriate. Seems like author was seeing every problem as solvable by email, and switching from that approach was the big benefit.

  • Karsten Evans

    When young people say they don’t use email only old people do then they just show that they don’t know what ’email’ Electronic mail is.

    A facebook message and twitter posts are emails just managed differently.

    You have to log in to Facebook, Twitter and all the other online places.

    You have dropped the smtp protocol and are using another email protocol.

    The big differences are spam levels and management of messages.

    Twitter to me is a sea of inane prattle, Facebook too.

    They are a replacement of news(nntp), forums and chat but you can include graphics and videos etc.. and re-re-re post something someone else saw someone else post.
    Now you need to watch what you post in haste as the world is watching.

    For a tech. society there are a lot of tech. illiterate young people.
    They can use text and social media but so can Gordon. ;-P
    It will end in world full of Gordons..

    [remembers Deja.com]

  • Matt Dinnery

    I’m a director for a company with responsibility for workflow management & technical implementation of virtually everything. We’re a regional news & media website supporting and promoting good beer, good cider, pubs & breweries – the things we generally do are list events that are happening, and run news stories, backed up by photos & videos, alongside developing a bespoke database of all the known breweries & beers in our area.

    I simply can’t “remove email” much as I can’t “remove twitter” or “remove Facebook”. What we do instead is manage everything through osTicket – an opensource ticket management system that we’re in the process of customising.
    Currently, some of our clients are beginning to use it more – especially in response to our replies (which we always send out from within osTicket). However, we still get a lot of press releases which are sent by email (usually to a number of reporters from different companies), and still get DMs in response to our tweets scheduled by HootSuite, so we’ve adapted to suit our clients, whilst still being able to manage our productivity quite efficiently.

  • Jacob Share

    He’s referring to Atos SA in France:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/tech

  • Blake Richards

    Think of the time I wasted reading this pointless article not to mention the replies. I didn’t read all of the replies!

  • Claire Burge

    Thanks Jacob!

  • Claire Burge

    Hi Matt. Thanks for your response. I love ‘case studies’ like this which show clearly how companies are adjusting their communication culture to meet client needs but also balance it with their own productivity needs.

    osTicket sounds excellent and I will definitely explore it further as I immediately know of a few different clients who I could recommend it to. It sounds very similar to a product that is being developed by the team behind Web Summit called Trigger (http://www.websummit.net/get-t… who also needed to find an efficient way of handling all their event enquiries.

  • Claire Burge

    Completely agree! If my clients have to use email, I always highly recommend Google Apps as the way forward. As for keeping your inbox empty: I would say that about 70% of my clients do exactly that and it is often the cause of their stress. If their inbox is above 20, the warning lights start going on ; )

  • komimis

    Quit facebook, twitter, and linkedin, keep e-mail and then you’ll see how much better your life will be.

  • CWhoa

    How do you suggest clients handle email notifications for Basecamp? I don’t want to overwhelm them, but I don’t know that they’ll log in much (especially at first) if they don’t get prompts.

  • Linda Samuels CPO-CD

    This is an impressive change in systems organization, Claire. I must admit that as I began reading about how you were going to stop using email completely, my heart started palpitating. As I continued reading, it became clear that for you, the decision to be creative about how communication and accountability was managed, proved to be beneficial….and extremely productive. Bravo on your productivity score increase!

    There are several groups I work with where the communication involves a combination of a specific workspace, like the ones you described, along with minimal email. I’ve experienced pros and cons. Mostly, it feels like just one more portal that needs checking….like using a new social media site. However, some of the benefits that you described, especially the accountability piece and the idea sharing are excellent because of the group workspace set-up.

    For the most part, though, with the volume of email I handle, the basic system I use works. You’ve certainly opened up my thoughts to other possibilities. I thank you for that.

  • Claire Burge

    Hi there. I agree that if email is not preventing you from being productive and focusing on the real work tasks that need completing, then it does not need to be removed. The greater question I am asking is: fax replaced post, email replaced fax, will email be replaced and are we ready for it?

  • Claire Burge

    I actually did quit Facebook for two years. Decided to join again as it generates revenue for my photography business through referrals. It also serves as an excellent tool to get very quick feedback on new work and concepts I am testing. Twitter is a brilliant SEO tool and LinkedIn is my most powerful sales tool. Email does not help on the SEO front or on the visual sales front so thanks for the suggestion but I think quitting email is going to help me far more in the long run, especially if I view the decision through a sales lens.

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