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E-Mail Zero: Imagining Life Without E-Mail

July 2nd, 2008 · 23 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…

23 thoughts on “E-Mail Zero: Imagining Life Without E-Mail

  1. Arthus Erea says:

    I have to agree with almost all of this, except in cases where clients are involved. My standard procedure is to *not* give a client my email address unless the explicitly request it. In almost all cases, I tell them my extranet can be used for everything and if they can’t do something on it, to give a call. This works in most cases, but some people are “addicted” to email. For those clients, I have to accept the fact and give them my email: the client is king. Still, I try to steer them clear of email as much as possible.

  2. Study Hacks says:

    This works in most cases, but some people are “addicted” to email. For those clients, I have to accept the fact and give them my email

    Arthur, it’s cool to hear some of the results of this thought experiment are actually working, to some degree, in real life. Gives hope to us all.

    I wonder what would happen, however, in your particular case, if you were to do the Tim Ferriss thing and simple “fire” clients that insisted on e-mail?

  3. Richard says:

    A good gedankenexperiment is always worth exploring, and as a K-12 teacher, this post caught my attention. It’s natural for us to evaluate the “harm/benefit” tradeoffs of a tool like email, especially in light of the “increased pace of living,” real or perceived, and the overload that many of us suffer.

    Realistically, though, email, used appropriately, has improved my personal and business communications. From more frequent contact with my parents, to more time-efficient communication with the parents of my students, the utility of email blows away the telephone, for me and the vast majority of users.

    I obviously don’t oppose those who wish to “drop out” from email use, for whatever reason. Just last night I had a wonderful conversation with a research scientist who is miffed that people expect him to have an answering machine on his landline. “If they want to talk to me, they can just keep calling until I’m home!”

    Ummmm…. yeah. I guess we all move at our own pace in these things.

  4. Evert says:

    A great experiment! I’m gonna try it once.

  5. Gary says:

    Cal, this just inspired me to cancel all time-wasting email subscriptions, after I had a full inbox this morning. I even cut off my Facebook and Myspace accounts. There are a couple lists that I consider to be worthwhile simply due to the value they add to my life, everything else is simply clutter.

  6. Nate says:

    A compromise could be using the Getting Things Done for College Students method to email. Completely clear out your inbox and then arrange folders titled “Friends,” “Family,” “Class-Related,” and “Important.” Maintaining a clean and empty inbox relieves a lot of stress by acknowledging that all emails have been attended to (even the ones that were deleted!). This, of course, is credited to Cal Newport. I second Gary’s advice – removing unwanted subscriptions is the first step to purging your inbox.

  7. Study Hacks says:

    Realistically, though, email, used appropriately, has improved my personal and business communications.

    I agree with that. For a lot of people — myself included — e-mail adds a lot of value. For some, however, it because the bane of their existence.

  8. Study Hacks says:

    @Gary & Nate:

    For what it’s worth, I do something similar to both of you. I use Gmail. I aggressively filter and unsubscribe to the point that I get very unhappy if anything arrives in my inbox that is not from a human being I know. I have various GTD style labels to quickly archive messages I can’t deal with right away, including a @ReplyASAP label for things I need to get to real quick. And I try to use good e-mail ettiquette to avoid unnecessary back and forth.

    The end results is that I have no problem keeping an empty inbox.

    However, relatively speaking, I don’t get that many e-mails. Mainly from readers, a few from academic colleagues, and the occasionally family and friend note. So I have it easy. I can’t imagine what it would be like if I had a position like Professor Lightman…

  9. Anonymous says:

    This is ironic. The article is about email-free life but commentators are required to enter their mail in order to reply.

  10. agv says:

    E-mail zero is just a mean to minimize the different paths of incoming information flows. Prof. Knuth gets everything in print. Prof. Lightman probably phones people and/or meet them in real time. Tim Ferris uses a VPA. What is common is that all three of them (and a lot more than these) collect all incoming information in just one medium. Controlling just one medium is easier.

    Latest email software (personal or corporate versions) and various web 2.0 applications/mashups try to achieve the same result … with the convenience of the digital world :) Imagine a Zero Phone, Zero Answer Machine and everything in your Inbox :)

    Just my $0.02

  11. Study Hacks says:

    E-mail zero is just a mean to minimize the different paths of incoming information flows.

    I agree. But the key point missing from your argument is that not all incoming information flows are made equal. Due to many factors, e-mail has a tendency to be way more time sapping than other forms of communication. Therefore, eliminating it, as oppose to the phone and answering machine, my be a better reductions among the many possible.

  12. agv says:

    All incoming flows are equal no matter the medium. They urge for our time and attention. For me, email is more convenient, I can arrange folders, highlight, rule, etc, to prioritize and pay attention on important things. Further, I feel more efficient; I can handle more than one email in the time it takes a phone call. The bottom line is that I know a communication toolset and I am happy with it.

    The key point remains the same: one input that filters all incoming information flows is better; let it be web 2.0, email, phone, whatever :)

  13. Oscar says:

    I can agree that we need to re-think communication a bit, but removing e-mail would be a bad thing. What differs e-mail from SMS? Or private messages on a service?

    For me, e-mail saves time. I can easily discuss topics with my classmates using a mail list, I can receive information without having to pick up the phone and write the information down (with risk of losing the note).

    But, as a student, I understand that others might have a lot more incoming mail than me.

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