I Turned Off From E-mail for 8 Days. Here’s What Happened.

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I’ve been around long enough to have worked in the “pre e-mail” days – I remember vividly how excited my colleagues and I were when the company got a fax machine (“We won’t have to drive documents around to our clients anymore!”)

I clearly remember in 1997 sending my first e-mail.  Do you remember how excited we all were when we actually received an e-mail?  (“You’ve Got Mail!”).

But instead of increasing freedom, electronic communication has instead created a mentality of “I have to be connected at all times”.  Until the advent of e-mail, that didn’t happen.

In 1993, I took a one-month vacation by myself.  I flew to Chicago, then drove to Toronto, Montreal, and then spent time viewing fall foliage in New England, saw a few hockey games, drove back through Pennsylvania and Ohio, and flew home.  I didn’t have a cell phone; e-mail was several years away, and the internet was limited to a few college professors.  How did I ever survive taking a month off without checking in?

Today, I get about 750 e-mails each week.  Like you, I can become a slave to e-mail.  (A recent survey showed that the average employee spends about 25% of their time responding to and sending e-mails).

So in the course of a generation, we’ve gone from e-mail as a savior to e-mail as the bane of our existence.  In fact, it’s becoming somewhat of a status symbol to be able to walk away from Gmail or Outlook for a period of time.

Thus it’s a particular pleasure when I can untether for a week and not worry about them.  My wife and I recently took an 8 day trip to Italy, and I was determined not to check my e-mails.  But I knew I had to worry about client needs, employee issues, and the day-to-day detritus that’s part of being a business owner and entrepreneur.

What happened?

  1. I prepared.

Our trip was scheduled for October 12-20, 2019.  A week before vacation, I notified all of my key clients that I’d be out of the office for 8 days without access to e-mail.  This was their hint if they needed something from me, don’t wait for October 12 to inform me.  I also put the dates I’d be on vacation on my e-mail signature.

I met with each of my administrative team to review any outstanding issues they had, and built in time to meet with each of them after I returned.  My consulting team was handled the same way.

A couple of days before leaving, I talked with our receptionist to review “if this person calls, send them to this team member”.

Our Director of Operations has worked with me for nearly 10 years, and she has an excellent sense of what I need to know and what I don’t.  I was confident that if something really needed my attention, she’d let me know via text.

Note: having a reliable team is essential to success.  If you can’t trust your team when you’re gone, then you need a new team.

The final preparation? We decided to leave on a Saturday morning, which meant the first two days of vacation were days where there was little likelihood of having to worry about an urgent e-mail.

I didn’t trust myself.

Despite the preparations and my commitment, I didn’t completely trust myself.  So I had our IT expert completely disconnect my iPhone, iPad, and laptop from e-mail connectivity.  Even if I wanted to check, I couldn’t.  This might have been the scariest thing of all, but I was determined not to leave any excuse on the table.

I still went through withdrawals.

Despite the trust and preparation, I still worried.  We’re so conditioned to check e-mails so often that getting out of that routine isn’t easy.  I found myself wanting to check several times during the first few days.  But I couldn’t.  So I found myself focusing more on our vacation – where we were going and when we were there – getting more into the moment.

I returned on a Sunday and devoted some deep time to managing e-mail.

By previous arrangement, I arranged with our IT guru to ‘re-connect’ me on the Sunday we returned.  So we got home from the airport, unpacked, took a nap, then I took a very deep breath, and connected.

There were 670 emails in my in box. I ‘triaged’ them into 3 categories:

  1. Newsletters & related e-mails. There were 78 of them.  It took me about 20 minutes to go through them.

  2. “FYI” type e-mails – from my team, clients, business associates. There were 500 of them, and it took me another hour to review them.  Not one of them required a response or action from me.

  3. Which left me with 38 “actionable” e-mails, which required a response or decision from me. 1 more hour.

I can’t emphasize how important this step is.  You need deep time – completely uninterrupted time – in order to clear your inbox.  If I had waited until Monday morning to do this, I’d still have a full inbox a month later, what with meetings, calls, interruptions, etc.  If you don’t have the ability to check your e-mails on weekends when returning from an email-less trip, then make sure to block the first 3 hours on the first day you return.

And…I was done.  That was it.  I went to work on Monday morning with an open and clear mind.  I survived without e-mail for 8 days.  It was a bit humbling (“I guess I’m not needed all of the time”) but ultimately freeing.

Did problems happen when I was gone?  Absolutely.  A brand new employee quit on her third day.  I didn’t find out until my return.  My Operations Director decided there was nothing I could do from Italy except stress out (and she was right).

Lessons?

  1. When you disconnect, your team will step up. (there’s a corollary with delegation).

  2. I’m not as essential to the every day operation as I thought I was.

  3. My clients, once they knew what I was doing, were completely supportive (and a little jealous). All it took was a bit of time to let them know what I was doing, and when.

  4. The feeling of going from stressful to freedom was really important, and created space in my brain to do what a vacation is intended to do – refresh and rejuvenate.

  5. I’ll be doing this on all our long vacations in the future.

To determine how important something is, walk away from it for 10 days.  Were you able to live without it?  Then it really wasn’t that important.

None of us are as important as we think we are.  The fact that we feel we have to check-in, check e-mails or texts just reinforces that ego.  Walking away is the component necessary to dissuade you of the “I’m indispensable” mode.

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