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

July 17th, 2008 · 34 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)

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

  1. Good stuff. I wrote a post a while back that dealt with not checking email in the morning. Your readers may appreciate it.

  2. 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.

    What!?! Why print an email message just to scan it to have it digitized again? That just seems like an enormous waste of trees, time and eyes.
    Why not just print directly to PDF with one of the gazillion free tools out there? Gnome users: you already have this functionality. Windows users: Use PDFill or CutePDF. To merge pdfs use something like PDFtk or pdfsam.

  3. sean says:

    Unless I misread it, he does answer e-mail. He just adds an extra step in the process where his secretary does all the filtering, typing, and sending.

  4. Study Hacks says:

    Unless I misread it, he does answer e-mail. He just adds an extra step in the process where his secretary does all the filtering, typing, and sending.

    The key being that he reviews those e-mails only every once every three months or so. For all intensive purposes, this is someone who does not work with e-mail (in the sense of needing to check it on a regular basis as a source of time commitments.)

  5. Julian says:

    well, who cares about e-mail inboxes? the normal average student won’t need anything like this and she/he certainly does NOT need to freakin’ outsource the filtering process or anything. I love your advise Cal, but all this inbox zero thing is such a waste of time for students or maybe my student life is totally different from all yours. Because if you get more e-mails, you are supposedly commited to a project and need to know/answer it in a rather short period of time. I think I can handle my 2-5 emails a day without that and I actually can’t imagine that all of the other students inboxes are so much busier.

  6. It seems that the basic principle is to avoid interruptions and this is something each of us can apply for email also. I highly recommend processing your email inbox in batches and not checking every incoming email on the spot. You therefore better de-activate the automatic notification. If you receive many cc emails, create a separate folder and a rule to move them into this folder automatically.

    If you want to know more please feel free to visit my blog on how to gain an extra hour every day, where I share hundreds of practical time saving ideas for home, work and on the go.

  7. Kevin says:

    As much as you have to respect Knuth, anyone who has a “real” job won’t be able to get away with checking email no less than at LEAST once a day.

    How many bosses would put up without a reply once a week or every three months? Come on, be real.

    And as far as personal email, that’s how people get away from the drone of their job, I WANT to check my personal email.

    But maybe that’s just me.

  8. Matsonian says:

    While I appreciate the efficiency, the whole idea of turning an email into a printed PDF is a complete waste of resources and counter to the purpose of electronic media in the first place… the fabled reduction of paperwork. I get enough in my snail mail inbox as it is. On the other hand… having a VPA who checks email daily, sorts it, answers the obvious, forwards the urgent or more important, WOULD be an ideal timesaver. I recieve 200+ emails a day if you consider the various groups, organizations, lists, Google Alerts and other monitoring I do to stay, as the professor says “on top of things”.

  9. spam lister says:

    You can’t claim you have a time hack by not doing something when you’re just having someone else, in this case his secretary, do it. I agree with Julian. Tim Ferris claims to get over 1000 emails a day? That’s so high I find it hard to even believe.

  10. Hank says:

    Post bug:

    ‘First, these are specialty addresses. “tacop” is…’
    Should be “taocp”. Unless you meant Taco Pee.

    Charge: 1 Hexadecimal Dollar.

  11. Monika says:

    Well he has (!) an E-Mail address and he communicates with this, so it is not zero at all. Show us somenone, who really does not use an e-mail address nowadays and communicates with thousands of people worldwide and who has no secretary!!! Than it would be zero!

  12. Study Hacks says:

    On the other hand… having a VPA who checks email daily, sorts it, answers the obvious, forwards the urgent or more important, WOULD be an ideal timesaver.

    Tim Ferriss (supposedly) has his VPA actually call him an leave a voice message summarizing the most important messages; which is an interesting twist. (I guess because he’s often away from computers?)

    ‘First, these are specialty addresses. “tacop” is…’
    S. hould be “taocp”. Unless you meant Taco Pee.

    Charge: 1 Hexadecimal Dollar.

    Good catch. You can send the invoice to my inbox. I’ll get back to you in 3 months. :)

  13. Study Hacks says:

    As much as you have to respect Knuth, anyone who has a “real” job won’t be able to get away with checking email no less than at LEAST once a day.

    Or at least, anyone with a real boss. These types of systems tend to work for academics, writers, artists, entrepreneurs, and others who don’t have a boss to report to (or, as the case may be, fail to report to because they didn’t get the e-mail.)

    While I appreciate the efficiency, the whole idea of turning an email into a printed PDF is a complete waste of resources and counter to the purpose of electronic media in the first place

    That was just me thinking out loud. Don’t get caught up on the printing, clearly, you can create such documents without having to print anything.

    Well he has (!) an E-Mail address and he communicates with this, so it is not zero at all.

    Well, his only real e-mail addresses are for reporting bugs or asking questions about his books. These could just as easily be a form on his web page, but he’s not likely to waste time building something like that. The key is that basically all of his normal communication occurs via phone and snail mail.

    You can’t claim you have a time hack by not doing something when you’re just having someone else, in this case his secretary, do it.

    Not quite true. He doesn’t use e-mail. His secretary doesn’t use e-mail either. She sorts his snail mail.

  14. Brandon Pearce says:

    The telephone is much worse interruptor than e-mail. You can ignore e-mail until you want to check it – as long a you have notifications turned off. But phone calls come with a loud ring and must be instantly addressed. Talk about an interruption! Unless you’re solely using voicemail, e-mail is far superior for avoiding distractions. It also leaves a trail of the conversations which can be helpful. I’m working on eliminating the telephone from my communication (haven’t used it for 5 weeks now!).

  15. Emma says:

    Knuth is a great guy. And this seems so like him. Nice exploring, even though I don’t feel like this applies to students.

  16. I agree with the comment that telephones are an even bigger interruption and time waster. I let my phones (mobile and landline) go to voicemail (unless I’m bored and want an interruption). I have to check my email a couple of times a day at work to stay abreast of issues (and get urgent requests from my boss), and I check my home email once a week as some of my bills are sent via email (you don’t have the option of snail mail).

  17. Jeremy Leader says:

    I think the key here is making a conscious choice. Knuth has consciously chosen his approaches to email and other forms of communication that work for *him*. Don’t get hung up on the details of what works for him, follow his larger example by thinking about what will work best for *you*. Just because your email client can make a noise or pop up a box to alert you to new messages, or your phone has a ringer, or “everyone else” works or communicates in a certain way, doesn’t mean that you should just blindly let those things rule your work day.

  18. Messi says:

    I don’t see the point of not operating on email. Email is obviously an easier and more convenient way to communicate, as snail mail and phone calls may take extra time. In addition, processing all the mail and paying a secretary to do that is a waste of resources and even more time.

  19. Scott says:

    I had a boss once like this. He didn’t use a computer – didn’t even have a computer in his office. But he had a secretary who received emails for him and printed them for his review, and typed in his hand-written replies.

    I agree with those that say Knuth in fact DOES use email, he just gets his poor secretary to do the work we all do. He ignores some, defers some, and handles some immediately. Doesn’t matter that the email addresses he uses has his actual name on it or not – he still uses them. I have 3000 unread emails in my gmail for this very reason.

    “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.”

    He uses email. He’s just outsources the use of an email client to someone else. Smart guy.

  20. Joe User says:

    I love all the people who talk about wasted resources.

    If someone is willing to pay for a resource, and then uses that resource differently than someone else might use that resource, somehow that’s a waste?

    Economically speaking something is only a waste when someone pays more for something than the value that person receives for that thing.

    If I want to run the bathroom sink while I shave and brush my teeth I am most definitely not wasting water. I am using the water that I paid for in a way that is pleasing to me.

    If I want to pay to print emails so that I don’t have to sit in front of a fucking computer then it is not a waste to do so either.

  21. Larry says:

    Nice first few paragraphs! Unfortunately, I didn’t get to finish reading because I kept being interrupted by incoming emails. =(

  22. Sandeep says:

    Even it is good to be too famous and not use mail. Those not well versed with technology definitely have trouble in understanding what is e-mail.

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