The Road Away From Email

A long and winding path with a pot of gold at the end. If I can get there.

10 min. read

I wish I never had to read another email.

This is something I’ve said thousands of times, aloud and in my head (mostly in my head). I’ve said it in anger after opening another death threat. I’ve said it in frustration when an email sent me down a rabbit hole that took me away from a project I had planned for the day. It’s been an underlying sentiment for years, but it wasn’t until recently that it turned into a concrete plan:

I am going to stop reading emails.

But how?

Email Drives My Life

I, like a lot of professionals of this era, see email as a necessary evil. It’s the ticket to get into the show. Email is how I make a living: it’s the way people contact me to book shows, reach out to invite me to speak, and how I communicate for the majority of my collaboration and volunteerism. In this I am not alone. Email is the cornerstone of my work life.

It’s also the biggest detractor from my work life.

Email creates an underlying anxiety that I have grown to accept over the years as immutable. The inbox dread (“Oh god. I haven’t checked my email in 2 days.”), the false sense of urgency (fed by recency bias, and other people’s expectations of how you’ll spend your time), the false sense of accomplishment (I made a number smaller!), the no-win fight (Sisyphus had it good).

Actually, email is worse than a no-win fight; it’s a paradox where the better you fight — the faster your punches and the more stamina you have in the ring — the bigger your opponent becomes. Every email sent has the potential to create more emails received. Email is the Hydra of workplace technology: “If a head is cut off, two more will take it’s place.”

My inbox has earned nicknames from some of my friends and colleagues. “The Beast That Can’t Be Fed,” “The Falling Tree” (“If an email lands in Sam’s inbox, and he’s unable to read it, was it really sent?”), and, my favorite, “The Hellmouth.” I generally just refer to it as “the miasma.” No capital letters: don’t give it the dignity.

For me, this is a real problem. My job isn’t to write emails, but to create the things that lead _to _the emails. So often, I find my days dominated by the emails themselves, or I get distracted from creation and have a hard time recentering, or an email sends me on a goose chase and I lose an afternoon.

(True story: while writing this post I got a phone call about an email I hadn’t responded to, which ended up gobbling an hour of my time; most likely true future story: this post will result in me getting at least one death threat.)

Last year, I declared email bankruptcy at least twice — an undignified, but cathartic experience.

Two weeks ago, I said “I wish I never had to read another email” in exhaustion after opening my email inbox to 7,000 new emails from the night before. I was at my partner’s family’s house for Christmas, with only my mobile to triage, or purge.

A couple days later, I was putting together a new speaking website, and I thought “I wonder how many emails I got this year? That’ll be an amusing stat.” I went through my 10 most popular email accounts (I use over 30 email addresses for work), added them up for a 2016 rough total (not counting anything filtered as spam), and came up with 255,089. I was unamused (although, this song popped into my head for some reason, and by that I was amused).

Those last three experiences considered together — the serial email bankruptcies, the random deluges, and the massive number of emails received taken on whole — finally broke this sad camel’s back. And that happened when I was reading a book last week.

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Fear-setting: But what if I stop using email?

We don’t often ask ourselves that question, or questions like that, in a non-rhetorical way. It’s so easy to accept influences in our life as inevitable, and our reactions to them as predetermined.

“But what if I stop using email?” has crossed my mind over the years, but the only response I’d muse was a hyperbolic, “I’ll starve, then I’ll die.”

I was reading Tools of Titans, Tim Ferriss’s new book, in which he recounts an exercise he introduced in The 4-Hour Workweek. It’s called Fear-Setting, and it’s explained really well in this blog post by Sam Davies (#samlove). In this exercise, one is forced to go beyond non-answers to fears, and to process the hyperbolic “I’ll die” answers, essentially spelling out exactly how legitimate a fear really is, and what you can do about it. I’m not going to get into all that here, but if you’re interested in facing any of your fears, it’s a great, practical, step-by-step process.

Considering an email abstinence in a non-hypothetical way for the first time in my life, I came to several conclusions:

  1. I don’t do the most good in the world through email.
  2. My email inbox doesn’t facilitate most of the connections that allow me to do my work.
  3. Most of the emails I get in the work context are either personal/-ish, and/or not necessary for me to do my work.
  4. Every step I take to remove email from my life will be productive even if I revert back to using email (more on this in the next section of this post).
  5. And, perhaps most importantly, any harm that comes from experimenting with “no email” will (likely) be reversible, and I won’t (likely) die.

I do the most good in the world through writing books & articles for the public, creating projects, and in-person speaking/training. Time spent on email is not time spend on doing any of these things, and email often derails me from being effective at them all.

Word-of-mouth communication facilitates most of the gigs that I end up doing, generally referrals from past clients. I never cold email, and folks generally reach out to my email inbox as a last step (i.e., they’ve already decided on bringing me in), because it’s convenient and available, not because it’s necessary.

If I stop using email, I’ll lose a huge indulgence, an excuse I’ve used to justify some of my less successful weeks, and a constant source of gossip. I’ll have to do a lot of proactive thinking up front to offset the daily grind that email occupied. And I’ll need to be flexible in new and different ways. But I will not die (from not using email — I will die, eventually, but that’s another conversation altogether).

And there are some things I can do to prevent any bad from coming from this, and create nothing but good.

The Masterplan

I’m not going to quit emailing cold turkey. I’m going to do it in a few phases.

Phase 1: The FAQ-ening.

Before I stop responding to emails, I’m going to create public responses to the most common emails I receive. These will be mostly preemptive answers to recurring questions from potential clients, journalists, and readers, but also include things like our “standard operating procedures” within hues and elsewhere.

If we have an SOP, or there’s a question I get asked a lot, and I haven’t yet explained that somewhere that google can easily find, I’m going to fix that.

Every individual site and project I have will have a FAQ (or something similar) as a barrier to contact (i.e., “Read this first, and only reach out with something not addressed here.”). I started doing this in 2016, and it dramatically decreased the amount of emails I received.

The nice thing about this phase is that I “should have” done it a long time ago. But it was too easy not to. Each email I send seems easier than writing a FAQ, or publishing an article, or creating a new page on a website. That’s how email gets ya: death by a thousand cuts.

Phase 2: The Army of Auto-Responders

As I mentioned above, I have over 30 email accounts. Each email account has its own purpose (attached to a different website, or a different role within a project), but sometimes those purposes overlap.

I’m going to create a custom, permanent auto-responder for each of my email addresses. The unique, common questions/requests each account gets will be answered directly in the auto-responder. Anything that is more broad, or part of an overlap with other projects, will be answered with a link to a site I designed for exactly this purpose: open.hues.

I will still be reading these emails, and occasionally responding when there’s a merited response, and it hasn’t already been answered elsewhere. During this phase, I’ll be doing my best to build out

Phase 3: Open Email

I created open.hues to become our platform for transparency. There, I’ll be responding to any emails that make it through the above filters, and creating the FAQs that are common to multiple projects. I’ll also be using it for all internal (to hues staff, founders, advisors) communication that can’t be done with instant messaging (we use Slack).

I plan to use that platform to write emails that I would have otherwise done privately, but allow them to be searchable and readable by the public. In this way, responses that aren’t common requests (I get 10+ a week), but still might be wondered or sought after, will be accessible without reaching out to me.

In addition to being a database of correspondence, open.hues will also provide a how-to for anyone who wants to do similar work to hues, to see the ways we communicate and how we approach projects — a nice added benefit.

Phase 4: Signing Out Forever

At this point, which I’m aiming to reach by mid-2017, I’ll have built the systems I need to feel comfy saying sayonara to email. And this sounds intense, but it’s really not that big of a deal. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be.

I’ll continue to be reachable by phone (for those who have that number — which I try to limit severely), social (I’ll be directing folks to Twitter [until I give up and quit that]), and through paper mail (P.O. Box 684412, Austin, TX, 78768). And folks will be able to book me through my manager (cmapa[at]novlmgmt[dawt]com), as they have always been able to.

I’ll also continue to write occasional public “emails” on open.hues responding to things that come from the channels above, but the vast-vast-vast majority of my communication will be done proactively.

The Road Less Traveled By

I hope this doesn’t sound whiny. It’s not meant to be whiny, just a full-winded explanation because I know that this plan might sound a little, well, eccentric. And I know I’m going to be explaining it a lot.

And I also hope folks don’t focus too much on the numbers themselves. I think email is a problem, even if it’s just a few emails that distract you, bring you anxiety, or inappropriately demand your attention.

Email makes everything seem urgent and important, and the simple fact of my life (and perhaps yours) is that almost nothing that comes through my email inbox is truly urgent or important. It was just convenient.

I’m okay with a little inconvenience, if it leads to me being able to better spend my time the way that I feel compelled and gifted to be doing so. I think quitting email is the best path to that outcome.

All-in-all, as much as I do hate email (I do), I’ve also received a lot of beautiful, thoughtful, meaningful, wonderful emails. I’m hoping those messages will still get to me, and when they do, I’ll be even more appreciative of them, because I won’t hate the messenger.

Send me a letter. I promise I’ll read it, and if it’s not a death threat, I’ll probably even write you back.


P.O. Box 684412
Austin, TX 78768