How To Live An Email-Free Life

Turns out that breaking up with your inbox is possible. What one woman learned when she gave up email for a year.

Email is stressing us out.

A 2013 study by researchers at Britain’s Loughborough University found that 83% of government employees became more stressed while sending and receiving email. In fact, their blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol levels—the hormone secreted during stress—all increased while they were active on email.

Some productivity experts will suggest that you organize your inbox while others will give you techniques to deal with your stress, but Claire Burge, owner of Get Organized Ireland, has another solution: Eliminate the source of your anxiety and ditch email.

"The point of an inbox is that you empty it out, but the problem is that it’s a mess of mixed communication," she says. "It basically serves as a notification system to convey information we already know. It’s a time waster that sucks people dry of valuable time that could be spent productively working on things they love."

Burge came to this conclusion two years ago after reaching a breaking point. At the time she was running an education technology company and would control entire projects through her inbox in a process she calls "nightmarish," racking up hundreds of emails a week.

Using RescueTime, a free tool that tracks your workday activities and calculates a productivity score for you, she was surprised to learn that she was productive just 23% of an average day. She had a light-bulb moment: What would happen if she went cold turkey? Could her business survive without email?

Three Kinds of Email

Burge analyzed her email and found that the communication would be better handled in other ways. For example, 80% of emails were task related: "It’s someone requesting action," she says. "This type of communication can be moved into a task-management program, where it’s more intelligently structured, with functionality for commenting, priority setting, due dates."

The second type of email was push notification—the FYI kind of emails where no action is required. "So much of this is unnecessary clutter," says Burge. "It’s people being polite. It doesn’t need to exist." These types of exchanges could done on a social media platform, such as Twitter.

And the third kind of email is a collaborative type where a team is discussing ideas before they’re ready to implement. "This is brainstorming," says Burge. "This is another type of email that can be communicated via a project management tool."

The Two-Step Process

Burge decided to do a year-long experiment, staying off email for a year. The first step was to let people know about her decision to go email free by putting a note on her Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter accounts. She also created an auto-responder on her email that said she was on a mission to reduce email with the goal of completely removing it out of her life. She asked people to connect with her on social media or to call her directly.

Burge thought notifying people would be the easiest step of the process, but it was the toughest: "My decision literally divided people right down middle," says Burge. "I realized I had hit a nerve. One group of people thought it was brilliant and that I was on to something. The other group thought I was mad."

Next, Burge moved her clients out of her inbox and into a project management system. "I explained to them that all of our work would be moving into a collaborative space," she says. She used Huddle, TeamworkPM, Basecamp, and Asana, choosing the platform based on the unique needs of her clients. She says all of her clients made the transition with ease.

The Results

The crux of the experiment was to discover if social communication is different based on the platform, says Burge. "To me, the difference was significant," she says. "With an inbox, everything flows into one pool; there isn’t any difference in any intelligent way. Using task management systems or social media platforms, messages are automatically sorted and are handled during times specified for those tasks."

Burge no longer wastes time searching for attachments and information within emails because it is all contained in the project management system. She doesn’t start her day checking email, and she switches off at the end of the day without feeling tempted to look at her inbox. Burge says she has reclaimed about three hours a day, which she uses to think and plan, and her RescueTime productivity score went from 23% to 68% in a period of 10 months.

"My workday is no longer dictated by email," she says. "Instead, I open the project tool belonging to the client who I will be giving my attention to for that day. And at the end of every day, I write down my task list for the following day."

The Exceptions

There are a few exceptions to Burge’s no-email strategy. She uses it to verify new software accounts, receive receipts from online purchases, and when a new client contacts her via her inbox.

"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," she says.

Burge doesn’t recommend that people go cold turkey: "It’s a difficult thing to do, like quitting smoking," she says. "I do recommend that people start applying the principles of moving work out of their inbox and into task management space. It makes you more productive. You’re getting work done and ticking it off, and there is happiness accrued from that action."

[Image: Flickr user Oyvind Solstad]

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5 Comments

  • Daniil Pavlyuchkov

    You have missed at least one type of emails. Emails from your clients or partners that are not support tickets. If you are a sales pro or a marketer you know what it is to handle so many conversations at once. And most of them are buried by unimportant emails. Luckily this was solved by Mailburn (http://www.mailburn.com) which works flawlessly with email conversation. It hides quotes, signatures and all other distracting stuff.

  • ned

    Wow. This is a great set of tips, I've been wondering how come my email inbox seems to own me myself. Thinking about emails as three different categories, ones that can be shipped off to more effective tools, is brilliant.

    now to cut down on my Groupon and DealFinder email!

  • Jody Ohlsen Collins

    'Spin' is sitting in my 'Inbox' as we speak, thanks to Tweetspeak Poetry and LL Barkat, supporters and publishers of Claire's fine book. I look forward to reading it..........and finding out to UN clutter my Inbox, as well.

  • Brava, Claire. For trying it, for modifying along the way, and for writing your book 'Spin' in the meantime (and not squandering the recaptured time).