About five years ago I realised that email and the internet was having a lot of negative side effects in my world and wellbeing. I started to make a series of changes that dramatically improved things, the most recent of which is possibly the riskiest and potentially most powerful: working through my inbox just once a week.
In recent years I have become increasingly uncomfortable with being ubiquitously tethered to the ever-present rumblings or goings-on in the digital world, carrying around a second inner monologue 24/7. We all already have one inner voice permanently talking at our minds; trying to calm and be at peace with it is enough of a challenge. Overlaying another stream on top which is constantly interrupting what little white space we have left to really think, is one of the banes of our generation.
Our constant connectedness brings a lot of great possibilities, but the status with which we hold it today is a prohibitor of creativity, independent thinking, peace of mind and presence in the real world. We need to take the power back. We need to bring back what it’s like to just be in the world, in our everyday living.
How I first started on this path several years ago was to turn off all alerts that existed in any application or device I used.
Anything that beeped, flashed or popped on a screen to tell me about something was banished. I encouraged anybody I worked with to do the same but many refused, habitually deferring to obediently glancing over their shoulders or down at their sides to whatever the latest beckoning was. Whatever it is or was, it is never that important or urgent and it’s ruining our collective sanity. This first move for me, was a major win.
Next, I carved out major blocks of time dedicated exclusively to analogue thinking and protected it fiercely. Every Friday morning from eight to 11 it was just a pen, a notebook and myself deep in thought, reflecting on what has happened and what I learned, and what I think about what should happen next. Planning, creating and imagining. I started this as a CEO of a company with almost 150 people in three continents and many people asked me where I found the time to which all I could respond with was: how could they not create the time? I have learned from seeing people around me in companies or non-profits I have helped build, that a lot of us operate on auto pilot - lemming-like into the office, laptops up, crashing into the inbox and fighting with it for nine hours straight punctuated by rushed in-person meetings that generate more inbox artillery, shrapnel cc'd everywhere and at the end of the day or the week a sense of - 'what did we achieve'? And are we happy with it, or ourselves? Often not a lot and no, not really.
In these blocks of what I call 'white space', I also spend this time checking in with myself. Ultimately I’m convinced this is the most important task we are on earth to consider - are we living up to who we really are? And nobody can teach us who that is but it doesn’t happen by itself. So in this white space I deliberately peel away whatever facades or pretences might have crept up in the last week, and get very honest about the reasons and motivations behind what I want to do or be a part of. One that probes the question of whether you are really honouring who you are, and not the ever-present imaginary external motivators that we might think are important. This 'truth-check' is really the ultimate gauge and calibrator for wellbeing - it’s more important than health, than the gym, what you eat or how much you sleep. Authentically revisiting and listening to the internal compass that is always striving to guide you is the true measure of wellbeing. If you are fit, look great, eat well, sleep well but are living somebody else life, by the imaginary rules of other people, ignoring your own true path and dreams and the essence of who you are, then you may be well, but you aren’t truly being.
A few years ago I started to experiment with using very basic devices like this card phone on certain occasions when I was out. I sought forced detachment from digital chaos and a life pared back to text and calls only. If something was really important, I was reachable. After a slight feeling of angst, relief and freedom took over with a sense of nothing to check in my pocket. If it buzzes there’s a text. If it rings, there’s a call. Nothing else. It quickly exposed that I had lost what little sense of direction I had, and after living in New York for ten years, I still couldn’t navigate it without Google maps, having 100 per cent outsourced my spatial awareness to the cloud. Maybe that’s not important and that’s the world we live in, but it’s good to realise once in a while that we are turning ourselves into machines.
When you don’t use a muscle it atrophies, and my navigation muscles were in disrepair. With the advent of Uber and being unready to commit to learning the streets, I reverted back to my old ways still some days going without my phone and signed up to the Kickstarter project Light Phone to restart my experiment when they ship.
So back to Inbox Reform. Email is broken. We have known this for many years and multiple attempts have tried to reinvent it Google brought us Wave (and killed it), Dropbox bought Mailbox (and killed it), some say the new Outlook is a saviour. But really it’s all the same-thing-different-story and none of it works: it’s not the app - its the human beings using it that’s the problem. Email is good for maybe three things: 1) coordinating meetings with multiple people, and 2) sending very short notes, with attachments or links to attachments, 3) sending a newsletter. Everything else is noise and a misuse of the medium.
So how does it practically work to opt out of the always-on-email conspiracy and switch to a weekly rhythm? The experiment so far is not based on the idea of only checking my email once a week; so far, throughout the week I am popping in and out of it. The idea is that I dedicate to a weekly cycle to sit down for about six hours solid and ‘batch process’ to completely empty the inbox and action all the tasks. I liken it to the old days when the mailman came and dropped off all the letters on a horse and cart, and then you handed him back your batch of replies from last week. After almost a month of the experiment, I’ve learned it needs a few tweaks but it’s far more efficient, extremely focused and almost all the mail doesn’t require a reply today or tomorrow when within a week will often do. For those that do, I can be called or texted so I am talking to people more. For scheduling support I have a virtual assistant and for specific people or things that I know I need to be on top of during the week I have set up simple mail filtering rules to keep me abreast. My responses are complete and reflect the thoughtfulness with which I would respond in person. My inbox is now at a ten year low, which is proving that it’s working. What might be really utopian is to quit email altogether - baby steps...
For many time-sensitive reactionary jobs, this approach won't work but for a lot of roles it will and is exceptionally liberating and perhaps less extreme variants can be designed. Systems like Slack are popping up to replace email for the constant chatter that is needed in roles like project management where things move iteratively. But Slack already has its detractors for increasing the firehose of irrelevant always-on-ness as this emotional blog on ‘breaking up’ with Slack attests. Companies are now also ditching or deflecting email with Uber leading the charge this week, Facebook trailing messaging with KLM and start-ups like Vinaya focusing on quieting the noise and customising how you are alerted to notifications that are most important to you, via wearable smart jewellery.
Perhaps we are on a cusp of re-envisioning how we want to live in the digital world. And perhaps we will no doubt soon discover in a myriad of medical journals that we have all suffered from clinically classified chronic addiction that has dehumanised us and removed our being from the wellbeing in our worlds. Email is dying or dead among younger generations. Just to check, I recently interviewed a dozen bright high-schoolers all heading to Ivy League universities asking each of them if they use it. Each fresh face looked curiously at me expecting a trick question, "Why would I, for what?" Very good question. Now, they definitely don’t have the answers, outsourcing their attention spans to Instagram and Snapchat personas, but there’s something in that response that it may pay to consider deeply if you’re in a position to influence how email is used in your community. It takes a bit of courage to change expectations of how you use email because it has become such an ingrained social norm. But it’s also an opportunity for leadership to reshape the intersections of our digital and real lives to avoid another generation marching in a lemming-like "rite of passage" as the WSJ calls it, into the addiction awaiting them in their as yet virginal inboxes.