It's 2014, and the most fundamental digital experience in our lives is hopelessly broken and out of sync with the way we live. At a moment when the most influential companies and brightest minds of our time are obsessed with altering the course of human history by increasing life expectancy and constructing civilizations on other planets, the single most elemental unit of written communication in our lives remains essentially unchanged since its widespread adoption two decades ago. The problem with email has gotten so bad that the conventional wisdom suggests it's largely beyond saving.
You can hear it in the tone of Gmail creator Paul Buchheit, who in recent reflection sounded a lot like a person who realizes he's helped to create a monster.
The problem with email now is that the social conventions have gotten very bad. There's a 24/7 culture, where people expect a response. It doesn't matter that it's Saturday at 2 a.m.–people think you're responding to email. People are no longer going on vacation. People have become slaves to email. It's not a technical problem. It can't be solved with a computer algorithm. It's more of a social problem.
As is almost always the case with technology, the problem isn't really the app or program or platform — it's your parents, your friends, your colleagues, and definitely your boss. And ultimately, you. Email isn't the monster, we are.
So it was with these two premises in mind — email is largely beyond saving, and we are the problem — that I decided to see what would happen if I removed this pernicious force from my life, and myself from the pernicious culture of email. I decided to completely quit email in all forms for one week. Not a "digital detox" or a vacation of sorts, but an honest attempt to work and live and be productive without the aid of my inboxes. I hoped it would be a chance to see how bad things have truly become.
Here's what happened.
I had my editor lock me out of my work account around 10:45 on a Monday morning to take advantage of the full work week. Shortly after that, I asked my roommate to change the password on my personal account. I set up vague vacation responders suggesting I could be reached via Twitter, phone, Facebook, or WhatsApp. I deleted the Gmail and Mail apps from my phone and iPad as well. I was fully 'off the grid.'
As a generally well-functioning workplace human, I found the first few hours to be problematic and uncomfortable. A phantom limb syndrome set in immediately — I felt vibrations on my phone from emails that would never come. Every 20 minutes I absent-mindedly clicked the Gmail bookmark on my browser only to be locked out. I felt uneasy, and disappointed at how uneasy I felt.
As a reporter, the first day was as messy as you might expect. I envisioned that, as a result of the experiment, most of my reporting would take place in person as well as publicly in places like Twitter or Facebook. I quickly found two things to be true: telling someone you don't have email makes you appear, at least superficially, a little bit unhinged. Contacting a stranger over the internet with the caveat that you "aren't currently using email" makes that person immediately less likely to trust you: a slight problem while reporting.
After the first day, I began to find some decent work-arounds. A LexisNexis subscription helped turn up some phone numbers via public records, and websites like the Better Business Bureau were very helpful in finding reliable switchboard numbers. And while it feels terribly obvious, I still found myself struck by email's ubiquity.
When I mentioned the experiment to friends and colleagues, they responded for the most part incredulously, the way a person might if you told them you didn't believe in modern medicine. Throughout the week I realized I'd taken for granted how comprehensively the web discriminates against people without email. It's very difficult to sign up for the bulk of the internet's useful services without email authentication; nobody (with some good reason) is trying to make life easy for the non-emailers. Email is not only a fundamental communication tool, it's one of the most prominent gateways to the web as we know it.
Then, about 36 hours in, something remarkable happened: I stopped caring. And everything was fantastic. Here's a quick excerpt from the notebook I kept during the week:
'Nights are great. Email is the primary push alert on my phone, and it brings me back into a work frame of mind every few minutes. Most of the emails aren't directed right at me but it's a constant reminder that there's something spinning around me. A harmless email from another editor about a recently published story on another area of the site nags at me. "When was the last time I put up a story?" It's not stressful in a way I can articulate, but not having it in my life makes me feel lighter. Feeling very good about all this.'
By the morning of day three, most of my deeply ingrained behavior was kicked. I didn't really miss email at all, and despite the subtle strain of trying to contact new people, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and messaging apps were more than adequate in tethering me to the rest of world. Once the phantom vibrations and mindless clicking stopped, I was, at least marginally, more focused. Evenings were especially nice. It's all pretty simple, really: My phone buzzed less and I was able to stay longer in my moments away from the internet. Put another way, my time off was really, truly time when I could be off.
As the week neared its end, I grew anxious to see what I'd missed, the way people 20 years ago must have felt coming home to a box full of paper mail after a long vacation. Volume-wise, there was a good bit. Here's a breakdown of the emails I received over the course of the seven days:
Work Email: 601 individual emails + 375 emails as part of email chains = 976 emails.
Personal Email: 34 Primary, 33 Social, 53 Promotions, 60 Updates = 180 emails.
Combined Total: 1,156 emails or 165.1 emails/day.
The most telling part here came when I revealed the breakdown to friends and colleagues who, to my surprise, weren't impressed. "That's really not that crazy," a friend told me. It was a clear sign of just how badly email has warped our perception of communication. Truly, something is wrong when 165 non-spam, directly targeted messages per day seems not only manageable, but reasonable.
A few takeaways:
• Email needs a "Favorites" button: Not sending emails for a week helped me realize what kind of emails I do send. In my case, the majority are superfluous "maintenance" emails. Mostly middling, worthless responses; glorified read receipts. And more often than not, those "nothing" emails prompted replies of their own. The 44 multiple email chains I was attached to during the week prompted 375 emails, or just over eight emails per chain, most of them along the lines of "got it!" "awesome!" or "OK!" Adding a fav seems like a simple solution to this problem, which is the simple acknowledgment that the email has been read. The fav can be quick and the subsequent alert can be passive so as not to disrupt, and the end result would be a lot fewer worthless emails.
• Email is the reason I spend most nights attached to my phone: At night I rarely spend a ton of time in email, but I'm always chained to my phone. Not having email helped me realize why. I noticed that email was drawing me to my phone at night and then into other apps. Seeing an email about something even vaguely work-related usually prompts me to check Twitter, often to follow up on something. After that comes the listless Instagram scrolling and purposeless app visits, followed by some waiting around until, eventually another push notification draws me back in and the cycle repeats. Without email — by far the source of the majority of my push notifications — I was able to break the cycle.
• Email is beyond saving, but losing it might not be as catastrophic as we think: At the outset, I held onto the notion that there was something "extreme" about this experiment — that I was doing something drastic that might have consequences. The reality turned out to be much more bland. Ignoring email didn't leave me unable to do my job, nor did it ruin any friendships, squander any huge opportunities, or do much of anything, really. People who needed to reach me found a way and vice versa. Other than a pervasive sense of calm and the ability to honestly disconnect when I saw fit, very little in my life changed. It was only a week, but it was a largely uneventful, yet still quite productive one.
Shuttering your inboxes for good is hardly a tenable strategy for anyone, including myself, but after the week, I feel I have definite proof that my life is better off with some kind of email regulation. And yet there's little very little I can do to change the culture of email. In writing this piece I read all kinds of "How to Win at Email" articles, many of which are so intricate that they seem nearly impossible to follow. I refuse to subscribe to the cult of "Inbox Zero," and I don't have the energy to deal with filters (though Gmail's tabbed inbox does a reasonably good job). I've subscribed to the idea of my inbox as a feed of sorts, which works great until I miss something. Complaining doesn't work either. TechCrunch editor Alexia Tsotsis aptly coined complaining about email overload as "a success problem," a trait as unappealing as email itself.
Really, there's no good answer here. And it's only going to get worse. A study by the Radicati Group, published recently by Clive Thompson in Mother Jones, suggests that we're only going to send more email:
If you think you're distracted now, just wait. By 2015, according to the Radicati Group, a market research firm, we'll be receiving 22 percent more business email (excluding spam) than we did three years ago, and sending 24 percent more. The messaging habit appears to be deeply woven into corporate behavior. This late in the game, would it even be possible to sever our electronic leash — and if so, would it help?
Thompson's piece touches on much of what I felt: Most email is largely unnecessary, acts as a tether to some aspect of one's corporate/personal life, and results in fatigue. Most importantly, as Thompson notes, "because [email is] a labor issue, it can only be tackled at the organizational level." To their credit, some organizations have attempted to kill email; every few years a story comes out about a company that banned email and loved it. Odds are, though, that email's frenetic pace will be replaced by another mode of communication.
So, what's the point? Like deleting your apps or nuking your Twitter feed, the point isn't to "detox" or unplug to regain your sanity — it's to change the way you think about technology. In this sense, I highly suggest giving it a try, if only with your personal inbox. It's changed the way I use email. For example, I'm sending far fewer worthless "OK, cool" notes. I've also started leaving my inbox out of view for most of the day when I'm in the office. It's not a cure-all, but it makes me marginally more productive.
Perhaps the biggest lesson, though, came at the expense of my ego. During my week away from email, nobody seemed concerned by my absence. There were no frantic emails asking where I was or worrying that I hadn't promptly responded to threads. Those that really needed me got in touch some other way. As it turns out, the service that I spend so much time and effort worrying about, checking, and manicuring can and will continue to exist without me. I quit email for a week and nobody really noticed or cared except for me.
If that sounds bleak, it's because it is; email doesn't need to change, we do.
Charlie Warzel is a senior writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Warzel reports on and writes about the intersection of tech and culture.
Contact Charlie Warzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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