Delayed Response: Why I'm Ditching Email in 2018
TO: Co-workers, work acquaintances, friends, and family
BCC: Anyone who put my name on a mass email list
SUBJECT: I'm Ditching Email—and Why You Should, Too
I can pinpoint the exact moment in the morning when my heartbeat quickens, my shoulders tense, and my stress levels spike. It's usually 9 a.m., when I arrive at my desk, switch on my computer, and open my email. It shouldn't be a particularly strenuous task, but after spending weeks away from my screen over the holidays, I realised it's a fail-safe stress trigger—and I've been letting it hijack my morning every day for the past nine years.
It might sound melodramatic, but science suggests my response isn't isolated. The ping of an email notification triggers dopamine, which "makes you curious about ideas and fuels your searching for information," Susan Weinschenk Ph.D., told Psychology Today. "The dopamine system is stronger than the opioid system. You tend to seek more than you are satisfied."
Yes, this psychological reaction is real, and it poses a problem for productivity. According to Weinschenk, it causes a "dopamine loop," where we continue checking email and actioning tasks—which don't actually amount to progress. In fact, a study published in the Harvard Business Review found that regaining momentum after a digital distraction can take, on average, upward of 20 minutes.
As soon as I started to implement email blackout times—hours when I wasn't allowed to check or respond to messages—my productivity spiked, possibly because I was setting my own agenda. "Email eats so much time," says entrepreneur Tim Ferriss. "First, because it's everyone else's agenda for your time, often including manufactured emergencies. Second, email allows you to fool yourself into thinking you're being productive." It has a Medusa's head effect: For every 10 emails we respond to and delete, another 10 sprout in its place.
So for now, I'm asking everyone I know to respect my digital space like it's personal space: Email me on a need-to-know basis (let's put an end to BCCs), trust that I'll respond when time permits, and understand that my priority is to produce great work—not fire off an email response at record speed. Here's the new set of rules I've started to work by and why they might be worth your time, too.
RULE 1: Set Email Backout Times
When we leave email open all day, running in the background while we work on other tasks, it blurs the distinction between two different work modes: proactive and responsive. Email puts us in a responsive mode—we're constantly playing catch-up, writing back to other people, actioning their requests, and sifting through messages to determine which are important. By structuring my day around email blackout times, I'm able to make sure value-adding tasks receive the most airtime.
Here's how it works in practice:
9–10 a.m.: Check emails, respond, and file them away.
10 a.m.–1 p.m.: Complete priority tasks (in my case, filing a story or doing an interview). Co-workers ping me if there's something urgent.
1–1:30 p.m.: Scan email and only read/respond to timely messages.
1:30–5 p.m.: Focus on secondary tasks.
5–6 p.m.: Check emails, respond, and file them away until inbox is empty.
RULE 2: Try the One-Touch Rule
This rule is simple in theory but much harder in practice: Once an email has been opened, you must read it properly, and then follow up on any action items and file it—no exceptions. It might sound rigid, but this rule prevents email buildup, meaning you'll stop using your inbox as a digital to-do list. Instead of leaving emails to remind you to complete a task, keep a paper to-do list, and file the email away. I found it really helpful to stop procrastinating.
RULE 3: Stop Apologising
During the first few days testing my email routine (or anti-email routine), I felt a ton of guilt. But eventually, I realised that very few emails are genuinely urgent, and to communicate that, we need to become better senders. Now, when I send an urgent email, I identify that it's timely in the subject line and set a clear deadline, bolded, in the email message.
One word that's now eradicated from my email vocabulary? Sorry. "For so many women, apologies are inexorably linked with our conception of politeness," writes Sloane Crosley in a New York Times op-ed. She argues that we should stop using the apology as a filler word with little meaning and use more assertive language. After all, since ditching a 24/7 email routine, I feel less stressed, more focused, and have been producing better work than I have in months—and that's nothing to be sorry about.