8 Days Without Email

“Is email still a thing?”

That’s what a friendly and oh so innocent Millennial asked me recently. “Dude, you have no idea how much a thing it still is,” I said. “It’s the lifeblood of corporate America.” You can Tweet, Snap and Post your heart out, but until your boss retires and you take over the world, you’ll need to send her an email for most communication needs. “Bummer,” he muttered as he ambled off.

In 1971, Ray Tomlinson sent the first email as a test in his Cambridge, Mass lab. My, how things have changed in the 46 years since. According to a Radicati Group study, executives can expect an average of 126 messages sent and received per business user per day by the end of 2019, with a total of over 2.9 billion people on planet earth using the email tool to communicate and set meetings.

I conducted an informal poll over lunch the past 6 months or so and found that most executives report receiving over 200 messages per day. So if we ditch the weekends, which no one does, then my friends are getting 50,000 messages a year over 50 working weeks. If it takes us an average of 1 minute per message, then we are spending 833 hours a year, or almost 40% of our working hours managing this beast.

It’s getting a little ridiculous out there. Despite barrels of digital ink being spilled on how to manage, keep up with and prune email, the stuff just keeps growing like electronic Kudzu.

Just Make It Stop!

A fishing village in the Cinque Terre portion of the Italy coast. The village is 1,000 years old. A few years before email was invented….

So, I did make it stop, for a brief respite anyway.

You see, Karen and I planned a 25th wedding anniversary trip to Italy, so I began to dream about unplugging from email. The last time I stopped the digital river of information was in 2012 when I took a backpacking trip in New Mexico with my son. I wrote about it in one of my most popular blogs called West Bound and Down | 12 Days without an iPhone. Given the clicks, I wasn’t the only person thinking about this issue.

But here’s the thing: if you know you are coming back to a huge backlog of messages, how do you relax? And maybe you will be tempted to peek early in the morning. I’ve heard stories of people getting up in the middle of the night on vacation or slipping off to the bathroom to have an illicit session of checking email. Ugh.

The Duomo in Florence taken from top of the bell tower

So I made a tough call. I was not going to ever read a single email sent to me while I was traveling on my vacation. All of them were going to hit the trash can with a punch of a few keys in a mass delete action. Bam!

I’m Really Out of the Office And On Vacation. For Real.

I penned my out of office with a guilty grin. Here it is:

“Thanks for your email. I am currently out of the country on vacation. Karen and I are in Italy celebrating 25 years of marriage, 4 kids and 1 very lazy dog. The kids and the dog are at home. We wish them luck.

I return to the office and real life on <date>. My plan is to mass delete all emails while I’m away, so kindly email me again after my return and I will return your message with a big smile on my face. I appreciate your  understanding and patience during this much needed downtime. So does Karen.

Pisa needed construction management!

If you need help now, then contact my teammate <name> who can get you taken care of.”

That’s it. And you know what, it worked!

Hey Karen, watch out for the wave behind you!

We spent 8 glorious days refreshing our relationship and exploring the big world out there. I got around 1,800 messages during my time away and I gleefully hit delete. There were about 4 issues that needed my immediate attention when I got back, but I missed all the emails on all the meetings, issues and problems that I couldn’t attend or attend to.

I clearly remember the relief of allowing myself to be present on our vacation AND not having to worry about digging out when I returned.

Vinyards near the ancient village of San Gimignano

Do I have a great team to back stop me and allow for this break to occur? Absolutely! Do I have understanding and cool clients? You bet! Am I so important that I need to be continuously connected and available at all times? Nope, not at all.

And unless you are in charge of national security for the United States or some other ridiculously high stress gig, you aren’t either. Heck, even firefighters and cops have days off from emergencies.

I Dare You

Today I attended the  funeral of a good friend, Scott Selig. Scott passed away at age 47 from an aggressive form of cancer. The loss of my friend has given me needed perspective and even more resolve on the email issue. As Scott himself said in a moving speech before he died, “put down the phone and enjoy life”.

I dare you to put up appropriate boundaries around your personal time.

Another view of the Cinque Terre. This village was founded by pirates 997 years ago. Ahoy matey!

I dare you to talk to your clients, colleagues and friends and explain that you need downtime too.

I dare you to confront your own addiction to this world of hyper responsiveness and over communication in which we live.

Be bold on this issue and your spouse, your family and ultimately your circle of friends and business colleagues will thank you. They will notice your new found focus and crisp response to issues because you have allowed yourself permission to rest.

Ray Tomlinson passed away a few years ago, but if he were still with us today, I bet you he’d give 2 thumbs up to email breaks. As Steven Covey said, even the best lumberjack has to sharpen his saw to be effective.

Time away is what intelligent executives use to freshen up, relax and reflect. In the times when you are getting away, email is toxic and will defeat the purpose. Be courageous and self confident in stopping the digital intrusion.

Do it. You won’t regret the digital break, I promise.

2 Comments

  1. Reed Kimbrough

    Great piece, Ken… I reclaimed my vacations (and weekends) some time ago…

    • kenashley

      Appreciate the comments, Reed. You are a good man.

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