Fences, sidelines, and the end of my email addiction

About a year ago we came the conclusion that being connected all the time wasn’t working out so well for us. We noticed that emails sent late at night tended to be longer, less focused, and much more likely to cause tension and trouble. I found myself checking email just before bed, and again as soon as I woke up, because I worried I’d miss something. I’d receive a late-night email about a problem, or even an opportunity, and wind up running through it in my head until 2am. Then I’d sleep restlessly for a few hours and wake up thinking about it. I never let myself step away, and as a result I was never really rested, and rarely at the top of my game.

So, we came up with what we thought was a good solution. Everyone on our team agreed not to use email between 7pm and 7am, and we put one of those timers you use to turn the lights on and off while you’re away on vacation on our wireless router, shutting off the internet in our office at the end of the day.

Not everyone who worked with us loved these ideas, but we all agreed to try them for a month. Our clients were dubious, but we felt that late-night emails were causing enough problems that we should give our experiment a chance and see if things improved.

It has become fashionable to talk about failure recently, and we are not above being fashionable: our email experiment failed fast and hard. We hadn’t made it through a full 24 hours before people started grumbling about the restrictions, and almost immediately some started rebelling against the boundaries we’d all agreed to. Keep in mind, we weren’t asking people not to communicate with each other; texting, phone calls, late night work sessions were all acceptable. All we required was that emails be sent only during a twelve hour period each day, but that limit left people feeling hemmed in and held down. The result: the email restriction acted as a lightning rod, bringing all the unresolved challenges to the fore and precipitating the breakdown of our team and the failure of our biggest project to date.

Skip ahead a few months to this past October when Jethro and I decided to try to tackle this problem again by reducing our own time using email. We chose two 60-minute timeboxes – one in the morning, one in the afternoon — and agreed to use email only during those times. We agreed to check in with each other for a few minutes every day about our experience.

We agreed to try this for three days and see what it was like to put a tight timebox around our inboxes. What was the worst that could happen?

Or, alternatively, what was the best that could happen? My list of unread email, which had hovered around 30 for as long as I could remember, dropped to zero by the end of the second day. Jethro emptied his inbox even faster. I stopped putting off replying to emails that might be stressful or difficult, and instead jumped in, did my best to be brief and clear, and moved on. After the initial three days, our two one-hour timeboxes seemed luxuriously long, so we dropped to two 45-minute timeboxes. That was still more than enough, so we now have a total of an hour a day when we allow ourselves to check email, though we rarely use more than a half hour a day.

And something else interesting happened: I noticed that whenever I got a little shot of stress – when I hit a rough patch in the middle of a design or got a momentary bout of writer’s block, my cursor jumped toward my email app. I realized I’d been using email as an escape hatch that allowed me to step away from a difficult problem and numb my anxiety. Three months into this experiment, I still get the email twitch a few times a day, but my need for distraction has quieted. I have control over my email addiction, but I may always have the urge to run to my inbox in moments of stress.

It took me a while to figure out why this experiment has gained momentum (and converts; most people in our office use some kind of email boundaries now) after our original one crashed and burned so dramatically. Here’s what I’ve come to: limits that other people impose on you feel like fences; limits that you impose on yourself feel like sidelines. We feel constrained by fences, so we react by pushing against them. But when we decide for ourselves to stay within the sidelines, we react by stretching ourselves and learning to play the game. When we are controlled by others, we feel trapped. When we control ourselves, we feel a sense of accomplishment. That sense of accomplishment matters – it is the reward that keeps us coming back to step onto the field every day.

Choosing for yourself to take part in the game is the key, and doing so with a teammate can strengthen our resolve and give us support when we inevitably stumble. Jethro and I still have a weekly check-in on our email boundaries, and the rest of our team now joins us to talk about email timeboxes and the other experiments we’re running in our office. We trade tips about how to tackle problems that we encounter and commiserate about times when we slip up. We provide support, and challenge each other to live up to the commitments we’ve made to ourselves.

There was a time, not so long ago, when mail came once a day. I would argue that this was good. We were connected enough, but not too much, and we had time to focus on other kinds of work and on other parts of life. Today, we can feed our desire for connection every moment of the day or night. There are good things about this, but it also crowds out the time we used to have for reflection and focus. Reclaiming that time was something I had to decide to do for myself.

For more on email limits and our other workplace experiments check out our workplace lab. Note: this method is now called LeanMail.

Nick Jehlen's picture
Nick Jehlen is a partner at The Action Mill