Lightman Lives Lightly
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 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.
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…