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Email Strategy

How I Gave up Email and Reclaimed 3 Hours a Day

Leave your e-mail inbox behind by moving your communication to collaborative tools and social media.


Most weekends you will find me speeding down a trail on my mountain bike. Bring on the drop offs: I want to jump them; bring on the hops and bounces and falls. I consider myself someone who can handle the things that life throws my way. But there is one thing that raises my anxiety levels into the red zone: email.

One day while driving home, I thought: “Why don’t I just stop using email altogether?” That night while drifting off to sleep I imagined my email-free life. I liked the picture. Within the same week, I made the decision to cut email out of my life.

1. Track your current productivity levels

In order to start this experiment, I needed to track the difference in my productivity levels with and without email. I started my no email journey by installing RescueTime, a tool that tracks your workday activities and calculates a productivity score for you. The system is fully customizable. It took me a few hours to input the online sites and tools that make up my working day. I also inputted all the sites and places that I would deem as distractions. From there I ranked each item on a distraction scale from -2 to +2. I worked in my normal way for one week so that I was able to benchmark, after I implemented changes. My productivity score at the end of the normal week with email was 23 percent.

2. Notify people

I started letting people know about my decision and thought it would be the easiest part of the process. It proved to be the hardest. I put a note on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter to announce my decision. I put an auto-responder on my email which read as follows:

Subject: No More Email

Body: As many of you know, I am on a mission this year to reduce email with the aim of completely removing it out of my life.

My reason for wanting to do this:

  1. I believe it is a time waster.
  2. I believe it sucks people dry of valuable time that could be spent productively working on things they love.
  3. I believe that it is a duplication of all the systems we already use.
  4. It basically serves as a notification system to convey information we already know.

So, please do connect with me in the following places:

  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn

Thanks for helping and if you feel so inclined, I would love for you to join me on this mission of simplifying my space and time.

Kindly,
Claire

The reaction to my decision was interesting: a few people even decided to join me. Others told me that I was mad. And still others had full-on debates with me via Facebook as to all the reasons why moving fromoffe email to other mediums made no sense whatsoever. The most interesting response came from my clients: they were genuinely relieved. My decision meant less email for them to deal with, no matter how small that daily number was in the larger pool of emails they were rummaging through. I felt encouraged. I knew I was on to something.
The most interesting response came from my clients: they were genuinely relieved.

3. Move clients to project management systems

After notifying my clients of my decision, I also explained to them that all work would be moving into a collaborative space. I set up accounts with Huddle, TeamworkPM, Basecamp and Asana. I would’ve preferred to only set up one tool but each of these platforms offers something unique that my respective clients needed. In order to not cause too much disruption, I decided I needed to meet the client where they were on tools they already used. The primary goal of these systems was to reduce the email deluge, and they did, because email notifications from the system can be controlled. I also trained my clients to classify their communications as follows:

  • Day to day discussions that do not need to be retained for future reference
  • Important information that needs to be referenced over and again by team members
  • Information that needs to to move to a task list because it requires specific action

Each of the project tools addresses these three types of communication very well. The message sections are suitable for day-to-day discussions. Important information that the team needs to refer back to over and over should always be documented in whiteboards and notebooks which are easily accessible, and any information that relates to tasks should always be managed in the task section of the project tools.

With the exception of one client based in South Africa, a country which still struggles with broadband speed, every single client made the transition with ease and all of them have subsequently implemented the same tools into their own businesses.

All the project tools allow for document sharing and Huddle also allows for online editing which means that documents do not need to be downloaded and uploaded all the time.

The Results: Benefits and a Changing Work Day   

The transition was far easier than I expected and what surprised me most was how relieved clients were to make the change with me. The greatest benefits that I have found include:

  • I have reclaimed on average three hours of every working day.
  • I am able to get home and switch off. I cook, exercise and read at night which I love doing and I do all these things guilt free.
  • I no longer start the day with email. Instead, I open the project tool belonging to the client who I will be giving my attention to for that day,
  • I no longer experience the compulsive need to empty out my inbox all the time.
  • I handle less than 10 emails per day.
  • At the end of every day, I write down my task list for the following day. After this, I open my email and clear it out using the file, action, delete principle. This never takes more than 20 minutes.
  • I no longer have to waste time searching for attachments and information within emails because it is all contained within the files and whiteboard or notebook sections of the project tools.
  • I no longer have file sharing problems because the files are accessible anytime, anywhere. With TeamworkPM, I also have Dropbox integrated which means that file sharing is even more simplified.
  • I no longer have lengthy team meetings via Skype or in person. I have educated my clients to start the week off with a Monday morning check-in where one strategic issue is discussed and all team members give a quick breakdown of what they will be doing for the coming week.
  • Meetings, when they do happen, are now happening in a collaborative space and I have noticed that people have become more accountable.
  • Managing overall performance is easier for me because with a very quick glance the entire team’s performance can be seen. This makes identifying bottlenecks much easier.
  • I no longer need to email and request progress reports from individual people. The system shows me where people need help due to slipping deadlines or where some employees do not have enough work.
  • Because full teams are collaborating in one space, I have found that cross pollination of ideas and understanding of different work streams has increased because people are exposed to what other team members are doing.
  • I no longer multitask as I did before. I open one project tool at a time and give that client my full attention before moving to the next.
  • People who work with me have a realistic time frame in mind when they can expect communication back from me because I have communicated to them what days of the week belong to them and their project.
  • My productivity score has gone from 23 percent when I was using email as my primary communication tool, to 68 percent over a period of 10 months.


Exceptions to My “No Email” Strategy

Some people are not fazed by an inbox with 16,000 emails in it so this type of project might be a bigger anxiety that your inbox. Also, for people who do not deal with large volumes of email, my system will also not be as applicable.

Of course my email accounts are still in use for verification purposes when I am signing up to online tools and software. I also receive receipts from online purchases via email and my website does have my email address for first time clients. Rather than cut it out completely, it would be fair to say that I have found a way to tame, reduce, and manage it – and I plan on continuing working this way for the foreseeable future. It’s been a very worthwhile journey.

How about you?

Is email volume and management an issue to you? What measures have you put in place to ease the pain?

  • Claire

    pleasure : ) hope it you are able to implement some of them!

  • Claire

    Leo brilliant that you are actively working towards improved communication systems in your organisation. What systems are you looking at implementing?

    The research in this area is scant as you say. I have looked for it myself with little success. Most of the research is centred around brands and their selling success, not individuals’ ability to be more productive so I can share what I have learnt from my own experience:

    The various social platforms niche into specific areas so naturally the conversations on those platforms tend to niche into those same areas. Facebook is social in nature, Twitter is opinionated in nature, LinkedIn is very business and recruitment focused, Quora is very help/assistance orientated. For me it has been this niching that has increased my productivity. By having social discussions in Facebook, I am very aware of the fact that I am not doing any solid business that is going to convert into sales for me, so I move to LinkedIn and Twitter to achieve this. However in the social environment that Facebook is, I have gained brilliant feedback on new ideas and concepts. It is an excellent testing ground for me. This is something that businesses had to pay very dearly for previously which is now freely available. Quora is core to the time I have set aside to learn and think every week.

    So at a high level, it is the all-round input on my business efforts that has proven to increase my productivity and ultimately my bottom line.

    Your thoughts? What are you concerns about social platforms and productivity?

  • naoma

    I get 50 or more personal e-mails daily but am a speed reader and speed typist, so it is not a problem. I do not belong to Facebook.

  • Chris Kelly

    Email is an overstretched & out of date tool. The fact people tweet images of empty inboxes (but never 0 notifications on Facebook for example) tells you everything you need to know about the serious short comings of email. If you have loads of non bill based post its fun, if you have lots of email its not. Viewing an email account is never fun. In one place I worked with 24 others, I was forced to email people in the office and forbidden to talk to them about allocation of work. i could actually see the people I was emailing, it was awful. I dont know that the options mentioned here are useable for anyone else. I guess eliminating something like email is always going to be an individual thing. One day someone will invent something that mean I wont have deal with ‘RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE:’ ever again

  • Val Ukeeler

    … and who are now admitting that it will not be that easy and pretending they never wanted to drop it fully.

    http://www.lemonde.fr/economie/article/2013/04/15/la-machine-arriere-d-atos-sur-l-ambition-zero-e-mail_3159874_3234.html

  • Gotta Change that

    It’s hard to do this, specially when the execs don’t have an open mind…I’ve been using Asana but for me only, I found it works but people refuse to change..

  • http://www.molehill.com.au/ Max Lynam

    I love the join newsletter prompt at the bottom of the article ….. might try and doing this myself and would love to see how it’s going over time.
    Now, how to get beyond the [email campaigns] to help build relationships and sell? Any thoughts from anyone on this?
    Thanks for sharing, enjoyed the possibilities.

  • Karl

    Your name is Claire. This makes you automatically “hot”.

  • Brent White

    This article makes me wonder what we did before email, oh that’s right, we had our time wasted on the phone. Email is a powerful tool if used properly, and this article is a great lesson in how to do that.
    Brent White
    http://www.GigitalMarketing.com

  • http://gravitasrecordings.com/ Jesse Brede

    Very compelling article. it seems like any form of communication can be abused by people that don’t have proper boundaries. I do think email is the easiest to abuse with the most effect on the receiver. Thanks for the ideas.
    Jesse Brede
    LionsShareDigital.com

  • http://www.nixonvs.com/ Nixon Virtual Strategies

    Hey, Claire. I first want to thank you for this article. It’s so timely. For some time now I’ve been rethinking and plotting how to use email more efficiently AND educate my clients to collaborate with me more effectively. This is especially crucial for me as I am a Virtual Assistant so I do almost all my work online. I don’t have the luxury of having someone come down the hall to my office to ask me a quick question or chat over coffee.

    I use Trello to work with a client/team in London (I’m in the US). If there’s a task that we need to discuss or a new project we need to work on, it makes much more sense for them to send an email directly to Trello so that it immediately gets posted to a board. I can be working, switch over and check what’s due and when without missing a beat; without having to say, “Got it.” More project management or online collaboration applications have such a feature but few of us exploit it for its value. If I’m already using the application anyway, it certainly saves me from having to open the email, read it, respond to it and then add it myself.

    I think the trick here is getting people we work with on board even when we’re working more efficiently ourselves. While most of my clients are technically sophisticated and, like me, enjoy trying out something new, there will always be those who just don’t get it and will forget the email address, or use it incorrectly, causing me more work altogether and missed messages.

    And as far as meetings, I completely allow people to self-schedule time with me which has virtually eliminated the back and forth of setting up times and dates. From my site there’s a calendar that syncs with my Google Calendar and Outlook. I just leave a buffer so no one can make a last minute appointment and trip me up and we’re good. That I’ve been doing for years and even my friends use it now when they want to be sure I have time to speak uninterrupted.

    We’ve got more tools available than ever before to make our lives easier. I’ve always said computers were never intended to make our lives more difficult. We’ve got the resources and tools – we should be using them to make our business *and* personal lives run more smoothly.

    What I have absolutely concluded for 2014 is a plan to introduce all NEW clients to Trello with a predefined set of boards and lists and an email address for them to use to send work directly there. Don’t wait – start out immediately and if there are any concerns or tweaks needed, we can work from there. But it is much easier to start out on this path than to wait until I’ve got yet another folder in Outlook bursting at the seams before attempting to instill new management techniques. And, of course, this would help when there are other members of the team, whether temporarily or long-term. Instead of having to forward a bunch of communications they can just join the collaboration tool we’re using and get ramped up quickly.

    I’m curious to know if others have streamlined their email communications using online collaboration tools. Also, how did you steer others to your new way of working. Anyone?

    Cordially,
    Patricia Nixon
    Nixon Virtual Strategies
    http://www.nixonvs.com

    The Power of Delegation
    recognized by Forbes

    • Claire

      Patricia thanks for sharing your process. It is really helpful to see how other people work and use tools. Trello is really good.I have a few clients on it.

      • http://www.nixonvs.com/ Nixon Virtual Strategies

        It’s funny – I type 90 words a minute so when I look back I’m thinking, “Damn…I sure said a lot.” Didn’t mean to ramble; just typing at the speed of thoughts. Clearly no one got the end to answer the questions. LOL! All my best.

  • http://www.nixonvs.com/ Nixon Virtual Strategies

    Another way that can be handled (at least with Outlook) is to set specific Send/Receive Settings for each email account. I did this about 2 years ago and it did change my work day.

    In my case, I have 5 email address coming through to Outlook. 2 of those are strictly business while the other 3 are personal. I set Outlook to check the personal email accounts every 2 hours and the business ones every half hour. Now that may not sound like a big deal, but I’ve always had them set to 5 minutes so every single email I received made me Alt-Tab to take a look. Now, if I’m on a call, for instance, and I’m expecting an email, I can always F9 and get it immediately. Otherwise, this set up keeps me focused and I don’t stop my work day to check emails from friends, family or recipe newsletters.

    So if you use Outlook, consider defining those settings and you may find that alone makes you more productive.

    Cordially,
    Patricia Nixon
    Nixon Virtual Strategies
    http://www.nixonvs.com

    The Power of Delegation
    recognized by Forbes

  • bluenosegirl

    I think the point David is trying to make is to talk to someone on Twitter you need a twitter account, if you want to message someone who is on facebook you also need to have an account on that network. With email I can email from my Gmail account to my yahoo, hotmail, AOL, even telnet users if they still exist and they can reply without needing to sign up to my network of choice.

    I agree email is a time suck, your inbox is basically a list of other people’s priorities. However the solution that replaces it will need to be as seamless as possible.

  • http://www.inspiredbyemma.com Emma Weise

    Amazing concept Claire… And I love how you were able to reclaim so much of your life (and productivity). I find that email can get pretty overwhelming sometimes… And occasionally it gets hard to spot a potential client email in amongst the bumpf…
    Some clients almost treat email like Whatsapp… Which then becomes hard to track the critical work aspects vs conversation – having been exposed to teamwork (and asana) – I can see how these solve quite a bit of the to/fro debate.
    Question… I follow quite a few blogs – how do you control/track/tame those emails?

    • Claire

      Emma great to see you here in the comments. In my opinion, http://www.teamwork.com has the highest rate of user retention. It has it’s issues but keeps people coming back and so I find that most of my clients choose it over tools.

      I do not subscribe to any blogs or online forums or newsletters at all. I am a ruthless unsubsriber from all emails that I receive automatically I set aside weekly reading time of 2-3 hours every week where I go to a set of links via my Twitter lists. I find this way more productive as I have the space to actually think about what I’m reading and share it in relevant places with relevant people. Pocket is a brilliant app and browser plugin which allows you to keep track of cool things you find online and want to return to.

  • Ugly

    Using often superfluous social networks rather than focused email clients seems counterintuitive to me; prioritizing and discipline are key regardless of your methods. I generally try to stay offline as much as possible and reply to emails at weekends.

    • Claire

      Agree that discipline is key. As I now implement this as a working strategy into many companies, I have come to realise how important the discipline factor is. so much so that I have included it as a talking point in my pre-training before companies start this process of change. As for collaboration tools being superfluous, long terms results with clients are proving otherwise.

  • shefali das

    There had been various such project time management tools that really helps in easy and effective management for your business organization.

    In this context, I personally used and found that a simple & quite hassle free time management software has been quite crucial in meeting and simplifying all our project time tracking needs.

    As such, it provided productive results and effective workforce and time related tasks managed in much better way in the organization.

  • Dave

    Claire

    Can you elaborate on the file, action, delete principle.

    • Claire

      Sure, thanks for asking …

      File: I do this with all information that needs to be kept like invoices etc for legal reasons.

      Action: This is anything that requires more than 1 minute of time. It gets moved directly into my task list in Teamwork and Wunderlist.

      Delete: anything that does not need to be kept. In my inbox this is 99% notifications from various platforms etc.

      So in essence, I will not open my inbox unless I have the time to action every single mail inside of it within one of the three ways above. I never read or skim my inbox just for the sake of it.

      How do you currently manage your inbox?

  • http://www.ceruleanunion.com/ Cerulean Union

    Awesome! But I will agree with others that incorporating social media would not work for me.

  • Ashley

    South Africa is not a country.

  • http://www.sahilparikh.com/ Sahil Parikh

    Super! Nice post. We use Brightpod.com (pm for marketing, content projects) to centralise our project communication, management, files and tasks. Helps reduce chaos and focus on the core.

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