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What happened when we banned email for a day

I spent all of last week travelling around Australia with one of my clients. She heads up innovation at a top tier law firm and I’d been brought in to deliver innovation keynotes at all of the firm’s offices. In one of our taxi rides, the conversation turned to email. She told me she gets around 350 emails per day. And she said that’s about average for employees of the firm. I jokingly asked, “How do you find time to actually work?”

I have no doubt that my client is not alone in her constant influx of emails. I personally have a love hate relationship with my inbox. I love the quick hit I get from seeing what “exciting” messages have come through (sort of like the excitement I felt checking the letterbox every day when I was a child). But I am oh-so-aware that my inbox’s magnetism lures me away from doing actual “work” way too many times a day.

So I decided to fight back, and bring my team at Inventium along with me for the ride. Last month, I banned email for a whole day. The rules were the same for every member of the team: no checking emails, no sending emails, no replying to emails, and only in an emergency were people allowed to search for something in their inbox if they desperately needed it for reference. People were officially allowed back in their inbox the following morning.

The announcement was met with mixed emotions. Some were really excited to try this out. Others were worried about how they would cope, given their reliance on email for doing their work. But when the No Email Day rolled around, we all, without exception, stuck to it.

This is what we learnt.

Email makes you feel productive, even when you are not.

When I reflected on my own behaviour, one of my biggest insights was that I have a really bad habit of checking email when I have hit a stuck point on something I am working on. It’s like I need a “hit” of my email so I can get a false sense of achievement, and then feeling better, will go back to my task. While this would be fine if it only happened once an hour, it was happening many, many times an hour. Whereby a task that should have taken me an hour or two to complete (such as writing an article), could easily stretch out far longer.

People took back control of their day.

Email forces us to be reactive. And the first batch of emails we check and respond to at the beginning of the day switch us into that reactive mode. In the lead up to No Email Day, several members of my team spoke about how they tried to get closure on some outstanding conversations (that would normally involve many back and forth emails) and plan out the things they wanted to achieve in a day with zero interruptions. And because of this, almost everyone on the team reported having a more productive (and proactive) day than usual.

Calm and focused were the most overwhelming emotions

I asked the team to sum up how they felt during the No Email Day in three words. While the day did bring frustrations for some, the overwhelming emotions were around feeling calm and focused. Given the many ways we can be interrupted during a typical workday, I feel like these emotions are pretty rare – and, of course, incredibly valuable.

People became hyper-aware of their addiction

So many people talk about email addiction. But so few people actually do anything about it, and even if they try, few conquer it. I guess that’s not dissimilar to addiction in other areas of life such as eating sugary foods. We know they are bad for us, but many of us keep eating them anyway. They say awareness is the first step to change, and the No Email Day gave my team a very heightened awareness of their addition.

We can’t stand doing nothing

Some of the team struggled to know how to use those random times throughout the day, such as waiting in line for a coffee or walking from the train station to the office, where email would usually fill the void. It’s as if having email in our pocket has trained us to feel either guilty or unproductive if we are not checking it during every minute of “downtime” we have. Which is ironic, as many people complain about not having enough downtime.

Emails beget more emails.

A couple of the team realised they would encourage email “conversations”. This would involve always ending emails with a question that needs a response, rather than trying to bring an issue to a quick resolution. This conversational style of course only serves to increase the number of emails they receive every day.

So what has changed?

After the No Email Day, we shared our reflections as a team and talked about what we wanted to change in our own individual behaviours. These are the main changes that have occurred.

We plan time to turn off email or limit inbox checking.

I think everyone in the team has either started shutting their Gmail browser when they are not actively checking email, and turning off notifications. While this might seem like a small and obvious change, the impact has been big, and has helped people regain control of their day.

We set aside Maker time.

Several of us will switch off email for hours at a time when we have a task to complete that requires focus and getting into the zone. For me, a habit I started to form earlier this year was to spend my mornings in Maker Time and my afternoons in Manager time. And because of this, most days, I don’t check emails until lunchtime.

We’ll be running No Email Days every month.

When we did a full team review, we unanimously decided to make No Email Day a regular thing from all the goodness it brought. So once a month, you can expect to receive an out of office reply from every single person at Inventium because we will be out of our inbox.

Related: A decision not made lightly: Atomic 212 pulls plug on emails in an attempt to energise staff and “It’s like Vegemite” – Why the business world has a love-hate relationship with culture.

About the author

Dr Amantha Imber is the Founder of Inventium (www.inventium.com.au), Australia’s leading innovation consultancy. Her latest book, The Innovation Formula, tackles the topic of how organisations can create a culture where innovation thrives.

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Amantha Imber

Amantha Imber

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