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The Woodworker Who Quit Email

November 21st, 2017 · 31 comments

The Disconnected Craftsman

Christopher Schwarz is a master furniture maker. In addition to working on commissioned pieces in his Kentucky storefront, he’s the editor of a press that publishes books on hand tool woodworking. In his spare time, he researchers traditional woodworking techniques.

In short, Schwarz is a classic craftsman. If you want to ask him about his trade, however, you’ll have a hard time getting in touch. In 2015, he stopped using (public) email. And he has no intention of going back.

As Schwarz elaborated in a recent essay, this decision upset some customers, some of whom tried to find ways around his no email policy by tracking down his personal address, or using the customer service address for his publishing company.

Here’s Schwarz’s blunt response to these efforts:

Please don’t waste your breath, your fingers or your 1s and 0s. These messages are all simply deleted. I know deleting them might seem rude. And some of you have told us how rude you think it is in long rants… which get deleted.

As he then explained:

Trust me. It’s not you. It’s me. I had multiple public email addresses for 17 years and answered every damn question sent to me…It was all too much. I was spending hours each day answering emails. It cut into my time researching, building, editing and writing (not to mention time with my family).

So he quit: he deleted his inbox, then deleted his accounts, and finally told people that if they really needed to ask him questions or solicit advice they could come by his store in Kentucky. If they couldn’t make the trip then they’d just have to move on with their life.

A Crafty Thought Process

Schwarz’s story heartens me. I don’t think that most people could replicate his decision to leave email. But I do think more people could follow the thought process that led to this decision (even if the specifics of their conclusions might differ).

In more detail, what impresses me about Schwarz is that he rejected the fear of missing out — on a new lead, on a new opportunity, on a new fan — that permeates so much of our digital age business culture, and started instead from a simpler question: how do I get better at what I do best?

Honest answers to this query rarely involve spending more time online.

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If you’re attracted to the idea of an artisan woodworker learning his craft, I recommend the surprisingly thoughtful (and quite aspirational) memoir, Why We Make Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman.

31 thoughts on “The Woodworker Who Quit Email

  1. Daryl Poortinga says:

    Based on this recent blog post, Mr. Schwarz may not appreciate being called a master furniture maker.

    https://www.popularwoodworking.com/woodworking-blogs/chris-schwarz-blog/words-woodworking-make-barf

    1. Dave says:

      Lol that was hilarious

  2. Adrian says:

    He quit email, yet he has a website for his business with social media links to it. Oh the hypocrisy.

    1. Oliver says:

      But the key message behind his statement is a different one: so much time is lost to social media, especially emails, that productivity really falls, especially in craft professions. We all waste too much time on such media.
      Sorry for my bad english.

    2. Study Hacks says:

      I don’t think that’s the correct definition of hypocrisy. For Schwarz to be hypocritical in this instance he would have had to make a general critique of digital tools against which his publishing company’s use of social media would present a contradiction.

      But he didn’t do that. He instead simply stated that his email inbox used up lots of time so he no longer uses his email inbox.

      More generally, if you’ll excuse a digression, this type of comment is part of the problem with contemporary discussion on new technologies. People always want to shift things into these epic dialectics — “all new technologies are bad” vs “new technologies are the key to a utopia” — and then police both sides for purity. This is not useful. There are many technologies and many different ways to use them, and the only way thrive in this world is to wade in and start figuring out what works and what doesn’t for your own vision of a life well lived.

      1. MattW says:

        Indeed; he’s not said that all digital technology is bad. He’s used the craftsman’s approach (as Cal explained in Deep Work) to decide WHICH technologies offer a return worthy of the time invested in them. Obviously, the inbox(es) did not make the cut, the company blog did. I don’t see any hypocrisy in this decision.

        1. James says:

          Love what Study Hacks said and agree. I’m figuring this out myself. With where I’m at just starting my career and way too isolated in a small town, using LinkedIn and Facebook is great to put myself out there and find resources and connect with things I’m looking for. And I can feel the anxiety/confusion of being online too much, and know at some point hiring someone to manage that, or simply not using it because I’m so sought after with direct connect relationships I’ll let go of social media and emails.

      2. C.M. Mayo says:

        “the only way thrive in this world is to wade in and start figuring out what works and what doesn’t for your own vision of a life well lived.”

        You said it, and I thank you.

    3. Erin says:

      It would only be hypocrisy if he was secretly using email after he took such a stand. He never spoke of the time consumption his website or social media links take.
      It’s a dangerous thing to sling judgement when you don’t pay attention the the details of your argument.

    4. EA says:

      Doesn’t look he’s a hypocrite to me. Among the technologies he uses he found one for which the opportunity cost was too high in terms of time, fatigue, and maybe money. So he cut off that one without going Amish.

  3. I stopped replying 6 years ago. Now I tell them they must pay consulting fees for emails or phone calls. Pay me consulting fees is every page of site, contact, etc. The want something for nothing are furious, the good people pay, I only talk with good people. Turn problems into cash. Thanks Andy Lee Graham traveling in Haiti. Hobotraveler.com

  4. Mike says:

    Great post. But “surprisingly thoughtful” memoir?

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I didn’t mean to be pejorative. I just meant that when you first think about a woodworker’s memoir, you assume it’s going focus a lot on the technical aspects of the woodworking craft (same way an athlete’s memoir will focus a lot about their sport). But this memoir caught me off guard because he uses his education is a woodworker to explore a lot of Matthew Crawford-style thoughtful issues concerning craft and value and meaning. Cool book…

  5. Not many woodworkers, in fact, none that I can think of, can rely on a storefront in Kentucky to make their living. Having a very popular magazine and several published books must help. Mr. Schwarz has the luxury to delete his email accounts.

    Try looking at Paul Sellers. He manages to do just as much woodworking at age 66 and write blogs and answer emails. His sons pitch in answering emails on his website these days but he did it for years as a woodworker and teacher.

  6. Raymond says:

    I need your response. I’m addicted to gaming. You think I should shut down the internet and delete all my games if I want to deep focus? OR is there another way?

    1. Chris says:

      You could also try to set limits for your game playing. E.g., a maximum of two hours during a particular part of the day, e.g., the evening. If you lack the power of will to do that, you might try to enforce that solution automatically. Also, ask yourself why you want to play game so much. Could the rest of your life be made more meaningful so that your cravings lessen? Throwing away all of your games sounds like the last thing to do after these other things have failed.

    2. Sam says:

      Yes, of course. If you’re compulsively gaming, then getting rid of the games / your console / whatever is the way to go – fill that time with more productive things. I used to game, and found it a massive time suck.. Deep focus is all about doing one thing at a time, and something that will actually enrich you, like learning a language, reading a good book, playing an instrument, learning how to make stuff out of wood / coding etc., take up a martial art like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (I have, and it’s changed my life in so many positive ways, helped me make new friends / great exercise)

      there’s a rich, satisfying

    3. lilysahifulb says:

      Yes. Starve the distractions. Feed the focus.

    4. Study Hacks says:

      I also second the recommendation to quit gaming altogether.

    5. EA says:

      Cut gaming.
      An added benefit is that after a month you will feel strong, and most likely you will BE much stronger.

  7. Parul says:

    This comment is not related to this post. I was wondering if it would be possible for you to start a series for PhD scholars? It will be really useful! Thanks!

  8. Ernst Stavro Blofeld says:

    Another interpretation: this business owner has achieved success while using public email over the course of many years. Now that he is successful, he has the luxury to disregard email.

  9. Azmir Ismail says:

    I understand behind his logic of abandoning email. As some readers have commented, all of the digital tools are still tools … it depends on how they want to use it, for their benefit, etc. He made his choice and stands by it. Will he change later? Maybe … but it is up to him to decide.

  10. I love these stories you post.

    Have you thought about doing a book where you compile stories and interview people like this?

  11. Zie says:

    It is not wasting time if the conversations on enterprise conversation app can eliminate the time spent on replying emails. Or if emails do consist more important message that we would like to archive. You need to be able to understand your needs and the style of the work environment you are in to find the sweet spot which the underline is set the right expectations.

  12. Arturo says:

    At least he was lucky enough to find the right answer of what he could do best! To quit social media platforms, or any other ordinary activities, you have to have meaningfull life tasks. Otherwise just quitting digital communication will leave you confused and/or isolated.

  13. Arnob Endry says:

    then getting rid of the games / your console / whatever is the way to go – fill that time with more productive things. I used to game, and found it a massive time suck.

  14. Someday, I’ll try and do something like this. It isn’t going to be easy for sure. Maybe become unresponsive for a month to test the waters.

  15. Anoop Sharma says:

    For all the talks about focus,concentration and discipline in this blog, one thing stands out, is relying to http links in the articles. These are distracting and only aid in breaking concentration while reading them.

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