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.

West Bound and Down – Twelve Days without an iPhone

Tooth of Time
Tooth of Time

Tooth of Time

I have a confession to make. For more than 17 years, I have been connected to the grid. Except for sleep, I was always tuned on. Yes, even on vacation, at night and certainly on weekends.

I bet I’m not alone in this admission, but at least I can publically declare my addiction to connectivity. I was like a real estate Waffle House; always on and available. Some will say I was like their hash browns as well; scattered, smothered, covered and chopped – but that’s another story.

But for 12 days in June, I had no iPhone, no computer, heck, not even a tin-can with a string. I accompanied my 15-year-old son Jonathan and his Boy Scout crew for a hiking expedition in the beautiful Sangre de Cristo Mountains of North Eastern New Mexico to Philmont Scout Ranch.

I’m proud of the 93 miles we hiked, the trials we endured, and the trails we climbed. We had an amazing time overcoming the obstacles together and more than one mountain top experience. By the way, I know why they call it that – the whole mountain top thing – adrenaline and views over a 50 mile horizon are an awesome thing.

Should it Stay or Should it iGo?

I thought long and hard about this trip. I don’t mean what to pack on my back, although that got a lot of attention. I had a tough decision to make on my iConnectivity. Should I take my iPhone in my pack or leave it in base camp?

Even in the wilds of New Mexico, one can get a signal at high altitudes. If I took it with me, I could make emergency calls, if need be. I’d have a compass, and plenty of eBooks to read in my tent at night. I could use the torrent of apps available for barometers, measure our distance covered, and perform all manner of important tasks. I could have a digital Swiss army knife (and yes, I could bring a solar charger to keep the thing going).

Oh, and I could check email.

I love my job, I love my clients, and my team had some very large transactions on the bubble. I really, really wanted to stay in the loop. I almost caved and brought the machine with me. There are SO many critical reasons to stay connected.

I realized, though, that I would be bringing a Pandora’s box of information into God’s Country. I began to understand that, for me anyway, bringing an iPhone “back country” would be the same as taking a phone call in the middle of a sermon at church. I’d mar a great experience with my son, and wrap my head around work problems instead of seeing the world one step at a time through his eyes. That Swiss army knife would cut apart my experience with my son and the other Scouts.

Radio Silence

Bam! The base camp locker door closed and the deed was done. I’d have no access of any kind for 12 full days. We put on the packs and headed to the busses that would take us to where our trek would begin. I’m glad they didn’t take my blood pressure at that point.

It had an immediate impact; and at first it was intensely negative. Uncertainty and doubt hit me. What had I done? What if I missed some major news item? I’m sure some client will need something urgently – probably right this moment! By the way, what do you do when you‘re waiting in line with nothing to occupy your time? Fortunately, there was no turning back on my information desert and I simply had to accept my decision.

After a couple of days, I began to relax and get into the groove. And then it began to hit me: the power of full engagement in a task you care deeply about, with someone you love is an amazing experience. I learned to function without a device and I am a better man for it. My son and I had the time of our lives, and I am immensely thankful for our uninterrupted time together. He is too.

What I Learned

Jonathan and I after summiting Mt. Baldy - 12,441 feet

Jonathan and I after summiting Mt. Baldy – 12,441 feet

After reflecting on this experience for almost two weeks, I learned that you can, that you must, unplug occasionally. Just a few weeks ago I would have (and did) scoff at the very idea. I am now a full on convert to strategic digital vacations. They clear the mind, cleanse the soul, and allow one to have rich and meaningful conversations with those close to you.

I have a great team behind me, and I’m thankful especially to Alysen Thompson for digitally backing me up. The piece of mind I got from Alysen, Sam Hollis, Sarah Momberg and Clint McKellar on my team was priceless. They brought me peace and confidence for 12 days at Philmont.
I also learned that the world goes on without you. This is a sobering thought, because we all believe that the rat race will come to an end without us involved. But it is a true and helpful perspective, at least for me, in the midst of our busy lives.
So, I am slowly reengaging in the digital world. I now have a newfound respect for the power of single tasking and focusing on the really important things in this life.
Hug your kids, your spouse or your pal this weekend and turn the machine off. Take it from me and my iSeperation: your digital audience will be there on Monday. Be present in the moment, and you will create memories and relationships that will last well beyond that silly text message. And on occasion, may I recommend that you simply take a hike!
Posted July 11th, 2012