Let's ban emails

When it was suggested that I might forgo the use of email for a day my response went something like this: “Are you actually kidding me?”

My alarm was well founded. Checking my email is the first thing I do in the morning and I do it almost constantly until I go to bed. My inbox is a great sorting room of messages coming and going: letters from Asia, postcards from Europe, a joke from one friend, despair from another and business dealings shuttling back and forth all day.
Why would I give this up?

But businesses in the United Kingdom and in the States have instituted “no email days” for the supposed benefit of their employees. The technology company Intel did so last year, after chief executive Paul Otellini criticised employees “who sit two cubicles apart sending an email rather than get up and talk”. Other organisations get rid of email for days at a time on the basis that it will improve productivity.

And then there’s the issue of stress: a study by Glasgow and Paisley universities in Scotland found that one-third of users felt stressed by the volume of email they received. It’s understandable: your inbox pinging away at you all day, new demands, questions and queries coming at you like speeding cars on a dark road.

You can’t concentrate on what you’re supposed to be doing because every time you look up there are nine new things—but the first thing doesn’t go away either.

“Companies have to recognise that there is an overload potential with email,” says Dr Penny Johnson, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Sunderland, England, who specialises in workplace stress. But she says that it’s largely up to the individual to monitor his or her own response to email. “The real problem is the constant checking,” she suggests. “It leads to hyper-vigilance and interferes with the rest of your work. There should be times when you leave it alone.”

With that in mind I opted (all right, was coerced and paid) to leave my email alone for one day. I might as well admit right now that I fell at the first hurdle. A series of disasters on Tuesday meant that Wednesday—aka no email day—dawned with me urgently needing to contact 200 people to request the same bit of information from all of them. Was it to be a day of finding their phone numbers and calling them individually, or five minutes of sending a group email? Email emerged victorious. Which brings us to lesson one: email is really useful. But the idea that I could just ignore all the various petty replies and out-of-office responses until Thursday was also pretty enjoyable. Lesson two: there might be something in this after all.

Paul Otellini of Intel believes that eschewing email makes you more communicative with your colleagues. I hit the phones—and not only was it nice to chat, but everything gets done so much quicker. There’s no wondering if they’ve got the mail and if they’re ever going to respond, no sending follow-ups. Job done. Lesson three: I did feel a bit more productive.

But here’s the thing. While checking my email all the time probably does reduce my work rate, it does have its positive sides. I use checking my email as an interstitial moment between blocks of work. Writing a message is a palate cleanser for my brain; it enlivens dull hours.

Johnson says: “Twice a day is sufficient for checking your email. How can you prioritise tasks when you’re always taking time off to check and respond to email?” I don’t disagree with the theory. But in practice I refer you to my initial no-email response. Lesson four: getting me off email is going to take more than a designated day.

I’m not sure that not using your email is really any less hassle than using it. I spent my time sending garbled texts saying: “Sorry, not on email today. Well, I am, but I’m not ...” and frantically searching for landline numbers for people I “talk” to every day and getting tangled up in a net of receptionists and voicemail. Lesson five: I was not feeling relaxed.

Nor were my stress levels reduced when, the next day, I had a backlog of email to deal with, my absence to explain and no noticeable reduction in workload. People shouldn’t expect to be able to reach you at the click of a mouse; they shouldn’t expect a speedy reply; you shouldn’t feel lost if you haven’t clicked Get Mail for 45 minutes.

But they do and so do you. A no email day is probably a brilliant way to step outside the madness, but only—and here’s the tricky part—if you can convince everyone you know to do it at the same time. Don’t ask me: I’ll ask only if you are actually kidding me.—

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