Study Hacks Blog

E-Mail Zero: Imagining Life Without E-Mail

July 2nd, 2008 · 25 comments

Lightman Lives LightlyProfessor Lightman

At first glance, Alan Lightman is the poster boy for a fast-paced, turbo-charged lifestyle. He’s currently an adjunct professor of Humanities, Creative Writing, and Physics at MIT, where, among other feats, he introduced the Institute’s first undergraduate writing requirement and founded a science writing graduate program.

Professor Lightman is perhaps best known for his writing, including the bestselling book Einstein’s Dreams. His essays on science and life have also appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harpers, The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and, basically, every other impressive literary publication on the planet.

When you read Professor Lightman’s biography, it’s hard not to imagine the prototypical gung-ho celebrity intellectual, glued to his blackberry, making moves, and ping-ponging messages with movers and shakers well into the night. One can only guess how many messages clog his inbox. 10,000? That’s chump change for the average busy professor. A better guess might be closer to 50,000!

But then you look a little closer at his official web site and notice a curious note:

I do not use e-mail, but you can reach me at my MIT office: [address removed], telephone: [number removed]

If anyone could make an argument that he had to have e-mail, it would be Alan Lightman. Think about it. He has to communicate constantly with students and his colleagues. He also has to zip around manuscripts and magazine articles. And what about keeping in touch with all of his high-power friends and fans? Imagine all the cool opportunities that he’s missing by shutting off the electronic spigot.

But here’s the thing: he’s busier than you and me, yet he’s doing just fine without e-mail. It hasn’t stopped him from accomplishing his professional goals or living an interesting life.

With this in mind, I implore you to shut the door, pull the blinds, and ask yourself, softly, the following question…

What would happen if you lived life without e-mail?

A Powerful Thought Experiment

I’ve been obsessed, recently, by this insidious little thought experiment. Over time, I’ve come to believe that for a significant cross section of society, life without e-mail would not only be possible, but would also reduce stress and not really cause any serious impact on their daily life or professional productivity.

First, however, let’s note who this probably doesn’t apply to: people with bosses. As has been often discussed, e-mail is asymmetrical. It’s easier to send e-mails than to receive them. Bosses want their lives to be easier at your expense. Ergo: you have to answer e-mail.

But what about the entrepreneurs or academics or writers or freelance consultants among you? Though your knee-jerk reaction might be “That’s impossible! My clients/collegauges/students/editors would never abide an e-mail free me!”, on closer examination, your situation just might be more flexible than you first believed…

Problems and Solutions

Let’s extend the thought experiment by facing our worst fears. What would become a problem if you were to lose e-mail? How might we fix it?

  • Lose touch with friends. This one’s easy. E-mail is poor way to keep up with close friends. Many people, myself included, tend to have a call rotation that keeps us up to date with everyone worth pinging.
  • My clients demand access. Yes. But this doesn’t have to mean e-mail access. Back in the good ‘ole days when I ran my own dot-com, we made good use of a regular phone check-in schedule and a sophisticated extranet that gave our clients the ability to check in on daily progress. At the time, this was crucial, because I was attending high school, and was a varsity athlete with daily practice, which meant that I was literally away from e-mail from 7 am to 5 pm most weekdays. They adapted.
  • E-mail is the best way to send files. Register a files@<yourname>.com e-mail address. Give this to people that need to send you a file. You can check it when you know a specific file is being sent. Of course, never actually respond to any e-mails sent to this address.
  • Too many people won’t go through the hassle of calling me, but they would have sent an e-mail. I’ll be missing out on this communication. Good! This filters communication down to the truly important.
  • My business requires me to handle a constant stream of requests and queries from customers (or students). Build a custom web site form that allows your customers (or students) to specify:
    • the type of request,
    • a description of the request, and
    • a list of actions, if any, they require from you.

    If you want an example of such a form in action, check out the contact pages deployed by some of the more popular productivity blogs. (For example: 43 Folders.) If they insist that e-mail is the best way to contact them, build into your system the ability to do one-way e-mail. That is, to send a message, from the control panel of your request submission system, to an e-mail address, and have the reply-to address be set to something fake. You can automatically append a standard signature of the form: “please do not reply to this e-mail. If you require further information, you can…” (If you need to process a huge quantity of such requests, consider a professional grade ticket system of the type used by system administrators.)

  • I’ll be left out of discussions driven by messages that are cc’d to multiple people. Very good! These are time wasters. If someone wants to put something on your plate they have to take the time to get in touch with you by phone, or in person, and explain, clearly, what is needed. If they need to check in on an ongoing project, the same holds: phone or in person. The result: less ambiguous crap. More focus.
  • In general, I’m going to miss out on some communication. That’s fine. We don’t need to communicate as much as we do now.
  • The editors/agents/clients I need to contact are only available on e-mail. Not true. People read letters and answer the phone. You just don’t want to make the effort.
  • Regardless of what you say above, I can think hard and come up with some work, or clients, or opportunity that would be impossible without e-mail. I’m sure such things exist. Don’t do those things.

The Benefits

The benefits that arise in this thought experiment are two-fold: (1) less crap; and (2) more focus. You still accomplish the important stuff, but also free yourself from all the small, or annoying, or unnecessary, or, worst of all, ambiguous requests that eat up so much of our day. Perhaps even more profound, imagine the focus you could achieve if there was no inbox to check. Instead, you just worked until you finished what you needed to, then shut down the computer, and got down to the business of living life.

The Implication

I don’t know what to make of this thought experiment. Should we really turn back the clock on such a powerful innovation? Would we really want to? I don’t know. But Professor Lightman’s example does make one thing clear: regardless of how you personally feel, the e-mail zero lifestyle is possible. If you live in your inbox, it’s a choice you’re making; a choice you could reverse.

For the students among you, this is something to keep in mind as you plan your ideal life after college…

Quick Hits: Searching for E-mail Renegades, Rethinking Work, and Listening to Ramit’s Take on Student Loans

April 26th, 2010 · 19 comments

Quick hits is an occasional feature where I take a breather between my epic big idea posts to share ideas, ask questions, and in general provide a catch-all place for me to catch up with you.

E-mail RenegadesE-Mail Zero

As part of an exciting writing project, I’m looking for people who have taken drastic steps to reduce the distraction generated by electronic communication tools — e-mail, social networks, twitter, etc. I’m more interested in big changes — e.g., getting rid of public e-mail addresses — than I am in moderation — e.g., checking e-mail only twice a day.

I’m interested in stories from knowledge workers, entrepreneurs, and folks in academia — be it professors, grad students, or undergraduates.

If this describes you or if you know someone like this, please e-mail me: author [at] calnewport.com. 

Interesting Links

  • “When it comes to student loans, financial aid, and higher education, everyone’s got an opinion. They just usually happen to be wrong.” Thus opens Ramit Sethi’s barnburner of an article on the costs of higher education.
  • “Comfortably situated in Chicago outside of the ‘start-up’ echo chamber, 37Signals is focused on getting sh*t done instead of chasing the Silicon Valley venture capital death spiral” This is Tim Ferriss’ description of the tech firm 37Signals. I’ve been fascinated by this Chicago-based company since I first read about their four day work week policy. Ferriss’ article is a great introduction to their unconventional thinking on integrating work into a full life.
  • “This would suggest that sometimes you’re not going to be interested in something right out of the gate.” This is one of several interesting conclusions from Ben Casnocha’s recent article on the science behind interest development. (A topic, incidentally, that I cover in-depth in my new book on college admissions. Did I mention that I had a new book coming out?)

Coming Up

I have two provocative posts in the works. One describes recent research on people who describe their work as “a calling,” while the other explores the controversial idea that competitive college admissions can actually be good for students.

Stay tuned…

My Focus-Centric Work Day

May 13th, 2009 · 18 comments

Blocking TimeFocused

Earlier this year, I made an important improvement to my infamous 9 to 5 student work day. Instead of treating these hours as one undifferentiated mass, I added the following simple structure:

  1. Writing
  2. MIT #1
  3. Midday
  4. MIT #2
  5. Shoulder

The accompanying rules were simple. The first thing I do when I arrive at my office is write. I wrote my first two books predominantly between the hours of 9 and 10:30 am, and I’ve finished 2/3 of my new book during this same interval.

Read more »

Monday Master Class: How to Use a Monotypic Inbox to Kick the Compulsive E-mail Checking Habit

August 11th, 2008 · 12 comments

E-mail AnonymousE-Mail Zero

Some students have no trouble with e-mail. Others, however, find themselves constantly checking their inbox — in class, while reading, while studying — making it hard to concentrate. This article is for the latter group.

The modern information consumer knows that the most efficient way to handle e-mail is to check your inbox just a few times a day and always process it back down to empty. For a lot of us, however, this is easier said than done. It’s just so damn tempting to take a quick peek; a glance to see if something cool has slipped in over the past few minutes.

In this article I’ll describe a simple but devastatingly effective hack for curbing this bad habit.

Eliminate the Difference Between Read and Unread

The hack works as follows:

  • Setup a filter that automatically marks every incoming message as read.

(In Gmail you can accomplish this by creating a filter with a wildcard — * — in the “From” field, then selecting “Mark as Read” as the action to apply.)

This hack eliminates the difference between read and unread messages — no more bold message titles or increasing inbox counts to titillate your senses. It makes your inbox monotypic — a term I’ve stolen from botany to capture the idea that your inbox now contains only one “species” of message.

The Power of a Monotypic Inbox

If you apply this hack, here is what will happen: At first, you’ll maintain your old habits, taking frequent quick peeks to see if anything interesting has arrived. As usual, this breaks your concentration and makes it hard to make serious progress on the studying or paper writing or reading before you. As you continue to take quick e-mail breaks, however, the number of messages in your inbox grows; and they are all marked as read.

Once your inbox gains a few dozen messages, things start to get annoying. You can’t easily remember which messages you’ve already glanced at and which are unread. You find yourself re-reading some messages and missing others.

Eventually, you get fed up and clean out your inbox. To avoid this pain again you stop checking your e-mail so frequently; making sure to now always leave yourself enough time to process it back down to empty so you won’t confuse new messages with old.

This of course is exactly the behavior we hoped to achieve. It’s a rough tactic, I’ll admit it. For most people it’s unnecessary. However, if you’re someone for whom frequent e-mail checks is scuttling your ability to concentrate, then it might be time to pull out the big guns. The monotypic inbox might be crude, but it works.

(Photo by dampeebe)

Bonus Post: An Author Who is Proud to Admit that he Sucks at E-Mail

August 7th, 2008 · 10 comments

E-mail Zero Strikes AgainE-Mail Zero

Once again I’m using Thursday to publish a bonus post about my E-mail Zero project. For the uninitiated, this short series questions the idea that all people should use e-mail and related technologies in the same way. It seeks out examples of alternative communication lifestyles.

Today, I’m happy to report that the venerable Merlin Mann from 43 Folders has recently published an article series on a similar topic. I wanted to point your attention to another E-mail Zero practitioner that Merlin recently wrote about: author Neal Stephenson.

I’m a Bad Correspondent

Here is a key excerpt from the author’s web site:

Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time…If I suspect that I might be interrupted, I can’t do anything at all.

Which leads to:

If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. [If I instead get interrupted a lot] what replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time…there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons.

And then the big finish:

For me it comes down to the following choice: I can distribute material of bad-to-mediocre quality to a small number of people, or I can distribute material of higher quality to more people.

What Does This Mean For You?

The big picture point: Ultimately, you gain respect and reward in this world for the hard things you do. Ask yourself this: what distractions disrupt your concentration? Does being constantly available by text message, or e-mail, or on Facebook make you better at being a student? Or does it make you worse? Do you really need to be that accessible?

The right answer differs for different people. But the one thing this series makes clear: not every communication technology is right for every person. Even if it seems like everyone is using it…

If you’re curious about the types of places such questions might lead you, consider this fact: I do not have — nor have I ever had — a Facebook account. And yet, mysteriously, I still have friends who know my relationship status and what movies I like.

Crazy. I know. But once you start asking the right questions, interesting answers shake loose…

(Photo by dampeebe)

Bonus Post: How the World’s Most Famous Computer Scientist Checks E-mail Only Once Every Three Months

July 17th, 2008 · 40 comments

E-mail Zero ReduxDonald Knuth

Two weeks ago, I introduced E-mail Zero, the concept of living life with no e-mail. The motivation was to investigate innovative ways to combat the stress and lack of focus caused by living in your inbox. My case study was MIT professor Alan Lightman, who though very busy and important, communicates solely by phone, mail, and in-person meetings.

Thanks to Mike Brown, over at the BrownStudies blog, I’ve found another fascinating E-mail Zero case study to share. I’m talking about Stanford Professor Donald Knuth, arguably the world’s most important living computer science personality (my advisor, no small shakes herself, recently won the “Knuth Prize,” a major honor). Professor Knuth is perhaps best known for his famed series: The Art of Computer Programming (named by American Scientist as one of the best twelve physical-science monographs of the century.)

On his official Stanford web site, Professor Knuth notes:

I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I’d used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime.

He continues with a rationale for his decision:

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.

The argument here is obvious. But still, nonetheless, powerful. For some jobs, e-mail hinders your ability to perform at your peak. In such situations, it would seem, as Professor Knuth has concluded, you might have an professional obligation to stop using highly distracting electronic communication.

But wait! The good professor is the author of famous textbooks, and he is famously diligent about tracking down bugs (he rewards any reported bug with $2.56 — one hexadecimal dollar). He also plays a major role in the computer science community and is constantly, I imagine, in contact with all sorts of famous people and powerful academics and members of the media. He has to stay in touch with tons of people all the time!

No worries. He’s got that covered:

On the other hand, I need to communicate with thousands of people all over the world as I write my books. I also want to be responsive to the people who read those books and have questions or comments. My goal is to do this communication efficiently, in batch mode — like, one day every three months. So if you want to write to me about any topic, please use good ol’ snail mail and send a letter to the following address…

But wait again! What if someone requires an urgent response? Again, he’s a step ahead:

I have a wonderful secretary who looks at the incoming mail and separates out anything that she knows I’ve been looking forward to seeing urgently. Everything else goes into a buffer storage area, which I empty periodically.

Okay, but what about us poor computer science students, with a textbook bug to report. We’re not going to take the time to buy stamps and envelopes — which none of us own. Once again, Professor Knuth has us covered:

My secretary prints out all messages addressed to taocp@cs.stanford.edu or knuth-bug@cs.stanford.edu, so that I can reply with written comments when I have a chance.

Two important things to notice here. First, these are specialty addresses. “taocp” is an abbreviation for his book, and “knuth-bug” is specifically for reporting mistakes in his book. Therefore, these e-mail addresses — which get printed and added to his snail mail pile — can be used only to ask a question about his book or report a bug. Anything else — as he clearly goes on to state — is discarded.

Knuth’s Two E-mail Lessons

Professor Knuth offers two important insights for our E-mail Zero discussion:

  1. Some jobs are performed better without e-mail.
    Professor Knuth is quite insightful to notice that for some jobs — such as those that require long periods of concentration — on the whole, e-mail can do more damage than good. Sure, it’s convenient for some things, but it scuttles your primary professional purpose. When contemplating the E-mail Zero lifestyle, ask yourself the following two questions: What do I do that makes me most valuable? Would e-mail make me better or worse at this primary role? A simple idea. But as mentioned, powerful in its implications.
  2. E-mail can be processed like snail mail.
    Professor Knuth was savvy to realize that certain groups he wanted to hear from — i.e., young people finding bugs in his books — would probably only communicate via e-mail. Having the messages printed and added to a snail mail inbox is a great way to keep these avenues alive without the distraction of a checkable electronic inbox. Of course, most of us don’t have a secretary to handle this printing. But I imagine that this is a perfect place for a part-time, out-sourced virtual personal assistant (VPA). Tim Ferriss, for example, talks frequently about his VPA who manages his e-mail and forwards him the most important messages. Imagine, instead, having a VPA paid only to check your inbox once a week. He filters out the obvious spam, discards messages that match some rules you provided, and then prints, scans, and sends you a PDF of the rest. Once a week (a month? every three months?) you can print the PDFs and sort them with your snail mail. Worried about urgent communication? Have your assistant sort these out and send them in a separate PDF that you print and process every week.

I’m just thinking out loud here. But we have to give Professor Knuth credit for giving us some outstanding new insight into the different roles e-mail might play in a hyper-efficient, hyper-focused work style.

Who else do you know that does or would benefit from the E-mail Zero lifestyle?

(photo from StanfordAlumni.org)