Despite being a tool designed to make work easier, more and more evidence seems to show that email stands in the way of our productivity. The constant need to check email interferes with our work flow. Studies have even shown email is bad for our health, causing elevated levels of stress and anxiety. A 2013 study from Loughborough University in Britain found 83 percent of government employees experienced higher blood pressure, heart rate and stress levels when they were active on email.
While productivity experts divulge advice to organize our inboxes and get to inbox zero by the end of the workday, Claire Burge, owner of Get Organized wanted to eliminate email anxiety completely, so decided to go email free for an entire year. “Email is a time waster,” says Burge. By freeing up her time spent checking email, Burge felt she could be more productive by working on the things that would propel her business.
The problem with email, Burge says, is that we’ve come to define work as clearing out our inboxes.
“But that isn’t real work,” she says. “Important work is sitting down and saying these are the key tasks I need to focus on to achieve my company’s goals and focusing on those tasks.”
Burge arrived at this conclusion three years ago after she and her husband returned from a trip to a barrage of email. “We were in the Sahara Desert and we literally had no contact with anybody,” she says. Having to deal with the backlog of email overrode the relaxation she’d achieved on the holiday and put her into a state of panic. Racking up hundreds of emails a week clearly wasn’t working for Burge, so she decided to embark on an experiment of going email free.
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Before going email-free, Burge examined her inbox and determined there were three types of email:
1. Task-Related: 80 percent of the emails found in Burge’s inbox were task-related. “It’s someone saying ‘can you please go and do x’,” she says.
2. Throwaway Communication: These FYI emails are a combination of spam, “thanks, got it” messages and what Burge calls push notification – the type of emails where no action is required. Many of these messages can be classified as email clutter.
3. Critical Communication: This is the type of email that is collaborative. Brainstorming emails where a team is asked to put forth some suggestions for the company’s new advertisement, for example.
After analyzing the types of emails she was receiving, Burge thought there must be a better way to deal with these messages. Task-related emails, she determined, could be better handled by a task-management program. Throwaway exchanges could be better handled through social media platforms like Twitter. And critical communication could be managed through a project-management tool, thus eliminating the need to use email.
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Once she’d figured out a better way, she had to let people know about her decision to go email free. She put a note on her social media sites and set up an auto-reply on her email saying she was on a mission to reduce email and invited people to connect with her through social media or to call her directly. She then moved clients out of her inbox and into a project-management system.
The effect, she says, has been enormous. By asking people to call her rather than email her, Burge says her conversations are much more focused. “You’re forcing people to think about how and why they’re contacting you. It’s very easy to fire off an email to somebody whereas it actually takes a little more work to contact someone through a social media channel or pick up the phone,” she says. Besides, she adds “so much more can be achieved by talking to someone on the telephone. You can cover a lot more issues a lot quicker.”
The task-based environment made everyone’s workload transparent and makes managing a team easier. “With email, inboxes are closed,” she says. “I can’t see into your inbox, you can’t see into mine. I don’t know how much you have to deal with and you don’t know what I have to deal with.”
Perhaps most important, having a workday no longer dictated by email means Burge is able to get more done. She claims she’s reclaimed about three hours a day since starting her email-free experiment. She no longer searches through her inbox for attachments within emails because all of the documents she needs to locate are contained in the project-management system.
While Burge has re-opened her inbox (that’s how I contacted her for this article), because her most important work is now located in a project-management system, she’s able to choose when to turn on her email and social media (at noon) and she makes sure she’s completed all her important work for the day before turning it on.
Can you go email free? Quitting email cold turkey is difficult, and not necessarily the best thing to do, admits Burge. Before closing your inbox, Burge first recommends defining what “good work” looks like to you. Look at what it is you need to work on and then decide which systems could be utilized to better manage those tasks.