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Turning Off Email

It wasn’t so much a New Year’s resolution as much as a bid for a low key vacation, but before the start of my annual Christmas and New Year’s weeks break, I turned off email on my phone and tablet. The accounts were left intact, but deep within the Android settings I told my various devices to stop fetching my mail automatically.

Android makes push email from Google Apps accounts so easy that I’d honestly never stopped to consider whether it had a downside. I never really considered it at all, actually. I could sync, therefore I synced.

Over the two weeks I was on break, the difference was startling. Most obviously, I was less focused on my devices, because when I picked them up, they had nothing new to hijack my attention. More subtle was the mental impact. Instead of a relatively constant stream of interruptions coming from inbound email, I checked sporadically, at times of my choosing. Instead of being jarred out of my vacation day by the arrival of an email that I might not have to act upon immediately but which I would unavoidably be turning over mentally while I was supposed to be on vacation, I simply went about the business of enjoying my downtime. It was refreshing.

My first day back from vacation, I debated whether to turn the sync back on. In the end, I did not. Here’s why:

  1. I am not a doctor:
    There is no situation – ever – in which my failure to reply to an email will result in someone’s death. And there is very little of my work that is so time sensitive that I need to attend to it within minutes of its arrival. On the rare occasions that might be the case, I retain the ability to manually pull my mail, as often as need be. My need to keep up to date, then, was a creation of mine – a myth – rather than the reality.
  2. Mobile email hurts, rather than helps, my productivity:
    One of my initial justifications for reactivating email sync was a desire to be more productive, more responsive to clients, colleagues and so on. But one of the things that’s become obvious is that mobile email not only doesn’t help my productivity in many cases, it actively harms it. When I considered the fact that a substantial proportion of the email inbound to me would require action on my part – action not practical within the context of a device – what was the point of reading it on the device in the first place? Best case it would get “Starred” for later follow up, but when back at the desktop I’d be swamped with waves of unread mail and the out of sight, out of mind Starred items would be processed only much later. Part of this is a workflow issue of my own, to be sure, but part of it is that – frequently – email’s not practical to process when you’re out and about.
  3. Mobile email distracts me from more important tasks:
    For those suffering from ADD, a constant stream of interruptions is probably welcome. Personally, I loathe interruptions (unless they are Red Sox related). Whether I’m writing, crunching numbers or having dinner with my family and friends, I would prefer to be doing one thing with my full attention rather than trying to simultaneously incorporate email processing and – the horror – replies. By trying to do two or more things at the same time, I get worse at all of them. Which seems like a poor tactic, particularly when it affects the people in my life that deserve my full attention. No more justifying myself with a weak “hang on, it’s just a work email” – which implicitly says that my work is more important than your time – I don’t even see the emails until I explicitly request them.

Two weeks in, it’s not obvious what the ultimate outcome of this experiment will be. Thus far, however, it’s been a positive change. If you find yourself perpetually bombarded with email, you might try it yourself.

Categories: Collaboration.

  • Andy Pflaum

    Regarding this point, “When I considered the fact that a substantial proportion of the email inbound to me would require action on my part – action not practical within the context of a device – what was the point of reading it on the device in the first place?…frequently – email’s not practical to process when you’re out and about.”

    Interesting to consider what are the implications for managing other kinds of data — such as slides/documents etc. — from phones & tablets. Read/consume works fairly well, but editing/collaboration/followup etc.?

  • http://wordofpie.com Pie

    I had a job like that, though now as CIO I have to keep an eye out for service disruptions. I find that it significantly reduces my productivity. On days where I focus my email reading on my laptop, I clear more items from my inbox.