I wish I could say I stated it boldly, chest puffed out and chin held high. Instead, I whispered it in a cowardly manner from behind the conference table as my team’s strenuous objections hurtled at me full force.
“We won’t get anything done.”
“The whole company is going to grind to a halt.”
“We’ll be interrupting each other every two minutes.”
“I can’t wait a week to have a one-on-one to talk about urgent issues.”
“It’ll make my life miserable! How am I going to delegate to my assistant? I already have too much to do.”
“It’ll be chaos.”
Once the panic cooled, we talked about why I wanted our company to return to the Dark Ages, before electronic communication. Here’s the case I made for why our business (and yours) could benefit from skipping a week of e-mail.
In most companies today, internal email is half to three quarters of all traffic. Reading, processing, managing, organizing, and responding to it absorbs vast amounts of time. We clog one another’s e-mail systems and to-do lists with a mishmash of crucial topics and trivial information and then waste hours of every day slogging through a hundred useless e-mails to ensure we don’t look irresponsible by missing the two or three important ones.
Worse, e-mail is rarely the best medium for addressing the issues and opportunities at hand. It brings us quick questions that don’t have quick answers; long, informative rambles with no clear action steps; conversation chains with too many people cc’d and many of them offering oversimplified opinions. And that’s on a good day.
Buried beneath our collective e-mail dysfunction are the important conversations our organizations and relationships need to move forward. E-mail is the worst forum for tackling these. Time and again I see leaders being harsher by e-mail than they ever would be in a direct conversation. E-mail has become a false way of addressing conflict, and the costs in terms of time and trust are dramatic.
E-mail is not a communication tool.
The first truth to tell about e-mail is that it facilitates lazy and thoughtless communication. Too often we put a concern or issue in an e-mail, hit the Send button, and boom: Now it’s your problem. You figure out the next step, provide the missing information, or remember to bring it up the next time we see each other.
We feel relief because we don’t need to think about it anymore.
That relief, however, lasts only until our in box chimes with an e-mail from that colleague or another doing the same to us.
Unfortunately, most of us are suckers for low-hanging fruit. If it’s an easy e-mail to handle, we knock out our reply and feel the high of getting something done. But if it’s not, it languishes in our in box while we search for something else to answer. Leaders in most organizations e-mail past one another—rather than talking with one another.
Being thoughtful about challenging issues is hard work. The rapid-fire, tactical nature of e-mail actually discourages us from stopping and asking ourselves, “Is this a priority that needs to be addressed? With whom?” We stay reactive rather than proactive.
Intention: By typing the word “URGENT,” “ACTION ITEM” or “READ ME” in the subject line, she is hoping to stress the actionable items of her email. Her message is clear. Perception: Her subject line implies that she presumes her message is more important than any other correspondence you might have received. The perception is that she is over-confident and thinks very little of your time.
You are the fire hose.
A common complaint I hear from leaders I coach is that they are too consumed by e-mail to be strategic. It’s true. We can’t create space for our prefrontal cortex to do deep, creative thinking if our reptilian brain stem is drowning in a sea of tactical e-mails. But this isn’t something that just happens to us. We do it to ourselves and to one another. Every time we answer an e-mail with content that should have been not written but discussed face-to-face or by phone, we perpetuate the dysfunction.
It was this frustration with my team and my own lack of productivity that pushed me to forbid internal e-mail for a week. I didn’t want to arrive at the end of another day feeling stressed out by frantic activity that accomplished little of importance.
Still, I admit, I was worried. What if their complaints were correct? What if we interrupted one another all the time and reverted back to the pre-e-mail days of paper notes and forgotten tasks? I didn’t want to look foolish—and I couldn’t take it anymore.
We’re addicted for a reason.
By the end of the first day, flurries of new e-mails had stopped capturing my time. A sense of calm descended, and an unsettling question arose: What should I be doing with my time?
Like many leaders, I had a long list of move-the-organization-forward endeavors that I never seemed to find time for. What’s most important to do, however, is often what’s most difficult. In the absence of e-mail’s ever-distracting background noise, I was forced to confront how I had unconsciously allowed it to keep me from taking action on those high-priority but uncomfortable items.
I began to carve out power hours in which to tackle those challenges head on. As my team did the same, our high-octane, stay-on-top-of-whatever-is-happening-via-e-mail mentality disappeared. In its place we experienced a more focused and productive energy. Many people mistake urgent e-mail activity for productivity, but that stressful busy-ness is invariably tactical and rarely strategic and creative. When we stopped sending one another e-mail, we stopped winding one another up. The decrease in stress from one day to the next was palpable. So was our increase in productivity.
This was when I grasped the most damaging cost of thoughtless e-mail: It prevents us from doing our best work.
Counterintuitively, this is also e-mail’s most seductive ego-benefit: It protects us from taking the risk of focusing our best effort on our most challenging endeavors.
Limiting e-mail helps us make choices.
Outlawing internal e-mail for a week challenged us not only to be more thoughtful about what we worked on but also to be more deliberate about what we addressed and with whom. In losing the illusion that we could do everything if we just kept sending one another e-mails, we zeroed in on our most pressing priorities. When information or an opportunity came across someone’s desk, we learned to ask ourselves, “Is this important enough for me to bring to the team as an agenda point?” instead of reflexively forwarding it by e-mail. Talking gave us a chance to define if and why an idea was interesting enough to merit our attention.
Whether it was the trust built when two team members worked through a conflict or the unexpected creativity we accessed when we tackled a problem together, communicating reconnected us with the neglected power of human interaction.
Effective uses of e- mail.
During our experiment, we kept track of when e-mail would have been a more effective means of getting something done. Here are the four uses of e-mail that enhanced productivity:
• Conveying simple, defined information. Agendas for meetings, say, or directions to a location. There’s nothing confusing or controversial about that type of data-driven content, and no questions are being asked of the recipients.
• Delegating clear administrative tasks. “Can you schedule this person?” “Can you send me that document?” “Can you have lunch Friday at noon?” Make the threshold of clarity high. Restrict these e-mails to very clear, no-questions-needed tasks.
• Transmitting an attachment. After you have agreed in a conversation about the task at hand, e-mail is a good way to send someone the relevant documents. “Can you review the job description we discussed?” E-mail is a courier service, not a project management tool.
• Documenting or summarizing a completed conversation. “Here are the minutes of our project meeting.” “Here’s what I heard in the performance review you just gave me.” E-mail is a good summarizing tool after the fact to ensure clarity.
Stop e-mail cold turkey for one week.
E-mail is so embedded in our way of operating at work that trying to manage it by structuring our use of it (doing e-mail at certain times of the day, or adhering to formatting rules) is typically insufficient. Our company had tried and failed with all sorts of techniques. We needed a week of detox to go through withdrawal and actually feel how much more productive we were in a world with limited e-mail. As with all rapacious addictions, actually stopping wasn’t like just thinking about stopping. Our cold turkey week was essential to breaking our e-mail addiction—so don’t skip it yourself.
During your week without internal e-mail (we considered remotely located colleagues as external), have your team members track their experiences daily.
• Was their experience at work different in terms of things like stress level, pace, and productivity?
• What did they do with the time they would have typically spent on e-mail?
• What topics came up that were more effectively addressed by talking? Why?
• When would e-mail have been a better tool than talking?
Take stock in a meeting at the end of the week, and decide together how you want to use e-mail in the future. Even if your team is part of a much larger organization, you still have influence over your corner of the world. Culture change begins with you. You and your team can choose to be buried by e-mail or empower yourselves to put boundaries around it.