Email Detox: Practical Tips To Cure The Addiction

Pim
Written by in Experiments
- 5 min read

Email is a persistent disease plaguing contemporary workplaces. It’s the default way of communicating in companies around the globe. But it’s also draining productivity and engagement.

On one count, a ridiculous 20 hours a week on email. 20 hours a week!

It’s time to detox.

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Detox time

Gloria Mark, professor at the University of California, studies digital distraction. She reports that when people get distracted it can take 23 minutes to get back to the original task. This wouldn’t be too bad if we were distracted once or twice a day. But that’s not the case. Several studies found office workers get distracted every three minutes!

The problem is clear. And big.

Instead of sharing insights from the world’s most progressive workplaces (which we normally do), we now share some of our own experiences at the Corporate Rebels.

Continuous experimentation

We believe in experimentation. If you want to create a truly engaging workplace you need to constantly try new ways of working to become even better. That’s why we run experiments on a regular basis.

Recently, we experimented with email. Here’s what we’ve learned so far.

Inbox to zero

This is our all-time favorite. Get your inbox completely empty.

The idea is simple: if an email requires action (reply, decision, team discussion, etc.), keep the email in your inbox. No action required? Move it to another folder. Personally, we don’t like to use lots of folders. That’s why we have a ‘shadow inbox’ called “Done”. Gmail and Outlook search functions make it easy to find emails if you need to. No need for complex folder archiving.

We have worked like this for a long time, now. It brings clarity and peace of mind.

Alternative communication

  • Instead of sending an email, walk over to your colleague and actually talk to him/her.
  • Instead of sending an email, pick up the phone and actually talk.
  • Instead of sending an email, use an instant messaging app like Slack.
  • Instead of sending an email, send a damn carrier pigeon.

And, do in that specific order. You will win every single time.

Check once a day

Last month we ran our first email detox experiment. We wanted to get rid of the distractions and interruptions to our work. We wanted more control over our priorities. We thought about the quadrant below (from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) and the distinction between urgency and importance.

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The experiment? We retrieved and sent new messages just once a day. The rest of the day we set Outlook to “work offline” mode. We spent 30-60 minutes a day emailing. We all felt more at ease and more in control of our work. Because of the success, we adapted and continued the experiment. More on that in a bit.

Studies show similar results. Checking email less frequently reduces stress and, paradoxically, people actually respond 20% faster!

Turn off notifications

Turn off all push notifications on your phone and laptop. Screw those shitty distractions.

To be honest, we even had to hide the email app on our phones. The most pathetic symptom of our addiction? We checked email on the toilet.

Also, don’t check on weekends. Wait until the next send/receive window on Monday.

When to check?

We checked email at 11am for the first month of our email detox experiment. This kind of sucked. Sending/receiving at 11am felt like a productivity interruption. So, this month, we altered the experiment. Now, we switch to “online mode” at the start of the day. So, the first thing we do is dispose of the emails, reduce the inbox to zero, and then get on with the rest of the day.

So far, that works better for some than others. Next month, we’re going to experiment with emailing at the end of the day. We will probably end up with different preferences. We tend to be productive at different times. And emailing – let’s be honest – is not when you need peak performance.

Here’s some solid advice from two ex-Googlers: “You’ll probably have a little less energy [...], but that is actually a good thing when it comes to email. You’ll be less tempted to overcommit by saying ‘yes’ to every incoming request, and less likely to bang out a multipage manifesto when a simple reply would do.”

Stop the madness

Last week we received a hilarious auto-reply. It stated something like: “I am not in the office as I’m attending a training session today. Therefore, my response might be slower than normal.” Seriously? You’re sending an auto-reply because you’re in training for one day? And you’re not even not responding, but responding ‘slower’. Damn, you must be writing emails on the toilet as well!

Oh, and stop the madness of endless CC’s. It’s sad, stupid and an utter waste of everyone’s time. Only CC if it’s really, really, really vital.

Join the detox

Join us in the fight against email overload. Set out a one-month experiment to change one or two things about how you handle your emails. After a month, evaluate, adapt, and improve.

And drop your detox suggestions in the comments below.

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Replies (13)

Ellen

Ellen

It reminds me of the following out of office reply I received: Donderdagochtend 10 januari ben ik ivm training niet per mail bereikbaar. In dringende gevallen ben ik telefonisch bereikbaar. I received this while reading ‘It doesn’t have to be crazy at work’ and it was an excellent example of craziness at work. I reflected on this reply with the sender. It was a deliberate reply because it gave her peace of mind that her team knew that she wouldn’t be available that morning and for me it serves as an example that we indeed should stop the madness. We expect swift replies to all those emails and that creates these kinds of practices...

I experimented with a practice from Deep work and that involves banning all distractions for a specific period of time, so no outlook, telephones in another room and sole focus on one project. It worked quite well and made it easier to create focus.

David

Great to hear it helped to create focus. Is it a practice you still use daily?

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Ellen

Ellen

Prioritary topic, indeed.
I do not use the word 'urgent', as it is has no management meaning to me. I prefer instead the marking 'deadline : X' , or 'to be done by Tuesday' for example.
Starting the day checking mails is a reactive form, so I do not practice this. I first have a pause, think of my day or agenda, and only then look at my mails.
Have a nice day
A

Alain Ruche

Great practices Alain, thanks for sharing! 🤙🏼

| | 0 | Flag
Ellen

Ellen

I send emails starting with “for info only”, “for your approval”, “checking required”, etc etc to help people filter. I filter emails from some people where I am on the cc list into a folder to read later. I use the follow up reminders to flag a deadline etc etc. I don’t have the alert where half the message pops up as that’s distracting. I limit checking emails 2 twice a day.

Karen Pateman

Love your practices, Karen, how do people react to this? Have there been good, bad or ugly reactions?

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