Last year, many of you were obsessed with tips and tricks for improving your productivity.
How do I know? My most-viewed article of the year--the one that earned me a spot on LinkedIn's Top Voices for 2016--was about how Tom Patterson, the CEO of men's underwear company Tommy John, managed his emails.
As Patterson's company grew, so did his unread emails. Pretty soon, he was getting so many emails that there weren't enough hours in the day to answer them all.
His solution? Just don't answer them.
Between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., Patterson did not check his email. If someone needed to reach him, they could call or text. He reserved the hours before and after this period for answering emails that actually mattered. The result, he noted, was that he had much more time to deal with the important, high-level strategic stuff. His employees also felt empowered to act independently; the radio silence helped them realize that not every decision needed his immediate input.
Patterson's email "trick" resonated with many people--myself included. Radiate has only just begun, but I'm already feeling the beginning of the email avalanche. Would this system really work for me? There was only one way to find out. I decided to try Patterson's trick and spend one whole week not answering emails during the day.
How It Worked
Setting up the "system" was easy. Technically speaking, all I needed to do was set up an auto-reply explaining that I was not checking my email between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., and that I could be reached by phone in the event of an emergency.
Very quickly, I realized how many email accounts I have. Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo. Accounts for work, personal, junk--some I opened just to get a trial offer on something. Jeez.
Ultimately, I decided to focus on the three I used most frequently. Soon after, I was hit with another realization: these days, people were reaching me a half dozen different ways, from direct messages on LinkedIn or Twitter to WhatsApp and Slack. What about those platforms? I decided that those would be ignored too.
I messaged a few people, including the public relations person for Tommy John, to tell them about the experiment. Most were eager to hear how it would turn out. I went to bed surprisingly anxious. I had a few rather important emails I was waiting to receive, and waiting all day felt like unnecessary torture. Plus, lingering in the back of my mind was a slight fear that this experiment was going to flop because I really didn't actually receive that many emails. What if I was unproductive for other reasons? Time would tell...
Day One (Monday)
It's the first day, and I've already changed something. I find that between getting the kids to school and hopping on the train to work, I don't have much time to check my emails before 9 a.m. So I decide that my email hiatus needs to begin at 10 a.m. instead.
One of my colleagues asks if I'm enjoying my "mani-pedi" time. It's funny how people equate not answering your emails with goofing off all day.
In other news, the system works! One of my friends texts about confirming a breakfast for tomorrow. He didn't make a big deal about the auto-reply message. He simply followed the instructions. I texted someone else about another matter, then realized that this person is a bit old-fashioned when it comes to communication, and usually replies by email no matter how you get in touch. Oh well, he'll have to wait until 5 p.m. for a reply.
The good news is that having this time away from your emails really does open your mind. I had some great ideas during my email shutdown; and instead of firing off emails about them, I jotted them down in my notes. By the end of the day, I had a list of ideas I wanted to develop further. I also was more disciplined all around, even with my meals--no overeating because I'm just staring at a computer screen or my phone.
I did find myself counting down to when I could peek into my inboxes. When the clock struck 5:00, I turned into the email pumpkin. Sixty-five unread emails. Not quite the 300-400 a day Patterson faced, but daunting nonetheless. Out of those 65, only 1 person texted me, so a majority of these emails were not urgent.
I pour myself a glass of wine and start replying. Being that people are still in the office at 5 p.m., a good number of replies yield more emails. It's the never-ending chain of replies. By the time I'm done answering emails, it's 10:48 p.m. A little later than I thought, but I do feel very productive.
Day Two (Tuesday)
Today felt pretty much the same. I notice that my aversion to email also means I pretty much avoid looking at my phone. Otherwise, I may be too tempted to open the inbox. When you're the only one not on your phone, you realize how many others are. On the street, in the subway, in the office. It's a disease.
A few people start texting me. Some of it is not urgent, but people choose to text anyway. At one point, I found myself texting for 15 minutes straight about nothing of substance.
I have a video lunch with a venture capital investor, Liz Tran, from Thrive Capital. The video lunch was her suggestion. She told me she was trying to make her days more productive, and that meant saying no to lots of in-person meetings and lunches. She said she was inspired by a book, Essentialism, which another entrepreneur friend of mine recommended. We have a laugh about our attempts to improve productivity. When she hears about my email experiment, she says, "That's so cool!" She wants to hear the results, too. Our video lunch was terrific. Not exactly the same as meeting in person--and neither of us actually ate lunch--but much better than a phone call.
By the time 5 p.m. rolls around, I know there must be dozens of emails waiting to be answered--and yes, there are. I forget I have a call at 5 p.m. because I'm so caught up in replying.
I have a dinner tonight, so I can't finish replying to all of the emails. I try to put away as much as I can, but I'm worried that I'll be up until midnight answering them. Instead, I come home too tired to respond at all. I leave them for tomorrow.
Day Three (Wednesday)
I wake up in the morning determined to get through my email backlog and send a bunch of new emails before the 10 a.m. cutoff time. I met two amazing entrepreneurs doing things in virtual reality last night. I spent a ton of time writing thoughtful emails to them. By the time I'm done, it's closer to 10:15 a.m.
During my "open" time, I had an idea that to increase my productivity even more, we should buy a "Robot Betty" who could help conduct Radiate interviews when I'm not there. I do a little digging into robot companies and come across something called Double Robotics. It looks more like an iPad on wheels. I decide to table the idea for the time being.
I cheated a little later in the morning. We had some emails we were sending to Radiate members, and there was no way for me to proofread the emails without jumping on Slack and email. Also, I realized that we had a deadline the next day and some information needed to be emailed--not texted--to people. It felt a little odd to email them, knowing that if they got a reply it would tell them I was not on email. Oh well!
I get caught up in a 20-minute text conversation about everything from Donald Trump to Justin Bieber. Not a good use of my time.
By the time 5 p.m. rolls around, much of what's in my inbox is not a terrible surprise. I saw a lot of it. I answer them and feel a little productive and a little guilty.
Day Four (Thursday)
I tried to stay away from most emails; but unfortunately, I had to put out some fires, and I had to do it via email. So this morning was a total fail.
Once I started to check email, I started to check social media. It's as if my fingers automatically open up these apps once I touch my phone.
A colleague asked me if he was allowed to "talk to me about an email," or if that would be a violation of my experiment. Too funny.
One new habit I've been taking up since starting this email experiment is that I keep a running list of email to-dos throughout the day. I don't act upon them--I just put them on a list and bang them out when 5 p.m. rolls around. It's extraordinarily efficient, and I don't have the kind of fatigue I usually do after emailing people all day long.
I have another dinner, which means I can't respond to emails until later into the night. By the time I get home--midnight--I only have the willpower to answer 6 emails before dozing off.
Last Day (Friday)
I banged out a few emails in the morning, but my backlog keeps growing, especially since I was pretty much offline all last night. I'm glad that I wrote in my auto-reply that people should try me again if they didn't hear from me within two days. I'm getting the sense that some emails might go unanswered for quite some time.
We're getting ready for our first webinar, so checking emails is a must given that all our correspondence with the participants is through email. I decide to end the experiment early, as the webinar will take a few hours and I may as well just stay on email. At least I have the weekend to catch up on the queue of emails waiting to be answered.
So here's what I learned from going (almost) an entire workweek without email during the day.
Not checking your email is very healthy (duh).
Once I decided to look up from my phone, I was shocked by how many people are on theirs. I realized how often I look at my phone out of boredom or procrastination, and how many precious minutes this habit wastes. I didn't particularly miss social media. In fact, I loved not wanting to check in.
Very few things are urgent.
The definition of an emergency is apparently very narrow. Many of my so-called urgent emails were in fact not that urgent. However, there was one instance where I was relieved I cheated and saw someone's email, as not responding to it in time could have caused serious problems. The person sending the email didn't realize the the seriousness of the situation, so they didn't think to text me. Lesson within a lesson: urgency is subjective.
Only bosses can really do this.
It's pretty easy to put yourself on email hiatus if you're running the place, but I doubt this would fly if you were an employee and your boss saw an auto-reply claiming that you were unavailable. I said as much to Tom Patterson when we met a few weeks later. Here's the two of us trading stories about my experience, which I filmed on my iPhone:
You need to have a fixed routine.
The biggest problem with this experiment was the massive email backlog I was left with at the end of the week. It took me a whole additional week to wade through them all, as the new emails didn't stop coming. As it turns out, you can't just be disciplined about not responding to emails--you also need to be disciplined about the windows of time when you do respond to them. Otherwise, a few dinners out will throw your rhythm off entirely.
Did I continue this experiment? Not really. For the last reason alone, I knew it was impractical to keep the same routine. My days were too erratic for me to fix specific times to check emails.
However, this week did have a lasting impact on how I view productivity. You can waste a lot of time answering and waiting for emails. Watching the outside world or feeling unhinged from your phone can be exhilarating. Now, I put my phone away for a few moments each day so that I can observe the world around me. Afterward, I always feel more refreshed. I've also kept the habit of jotting down all my email to-dos in one list so that I can bang them out at the end of the day in rapid fashion. It's very efficient.
As you can imagine, I'm not the only person who's looking for creative ways to manage their emails. At Radiate, we've also asked CEOs other than Patterson what tricks they use to save time. Here are a few of our favorite answers.