I Can’t Kill Email.

How I learned to take responsibility for that.

I broke the cycle, just not the platform…

According to research conducted by the Radicati Group, in 2015 over 196.4 billion emails are sent per day across the world, with around 60% of these being business emails. Therein lies the issue.

Towards the end of 2014 I declared that Email Must Die. I was determined that 2015 would be the year in which I completely gave up email, but from the start it became clear that this wasn’t going to be so simple. A month into the experiment, I updated that I’d managed to reduce my email usage significantly, but not entirely.

Six months in, that’s how things remain — reduced, but not eradicated. The difference now is that I’m not sure I actually want (or need) anything more than that. My relationship with email has altered to the point that the negative aspects of it have disappeared:

Inbox-related stress… gone.

Constant checking… stopped.

Personal email… eradicated.

Business email… minimised.

The thing with email is that it’s a method of communication. Just because we’ve come to abuse it, that doesn’t mean it’s fundamentally flawed. Used appropriately, email is very useful.

The Journey to #LessEmail.

Part of my inspiration to take the plunge and try to kill email was Claire Burge, who successfully managed a year without it and continues to be a passionate and vocal advocate of the death of email. We share similar perspectives on email and its use (or misuse), but our experiences in reducing it have led us to different conclusions. I think it might be due to circumstance.

When I decided to kick the email habit, I had embarked on The Work Project. In the early stages, I had no clients or suppliers to work with and most of my email traffic fell into two categories — avoidable or junk. Soon after starting my #NoEmail drive, I started to get work. Immediately, in order to pay the bills, I needed to communicate and maintain relationships with people and organisations who rely heavily on email.

Where possible I move all conversations to the most appropriate platform and have become far more committed to Glip, Slack, Skype, Twitter and others. Despite this, I just can’t escape the fact that sometimes:

  • Email is the most appropriate form of communication;
  • Email is the de facto form of communication for the person I’m communicating with.

All of a sudden, when livelihood depends on it, the my way or the highway approach to #NoEmail seems a step too far. Instead, I’ve opted to start communicating with everyone and moving conversations to the most appropriate channel — introducing Glip to a customer project, picking up the phone instead of pressing reply, starting our conversation with a Skype call. It’s very difficult — and perhaps a little counter-productive to refuse to email with someone who is committed to email. For me, helping them to gradually change their ways is far more useful.

I raised these points when I was privileged to be the guest on the Life Without Email Vodcast with Claire and the excellent Luis Suarez — pioneer of #NoEmail in his time at IBM and ongoing campaigner for better ways to work. There’s no doubt that the way we use email is excessive, often inappropriate and at worst, unnecessary. Technology has enabled us to communicate and share freely in so many more ways, but that doesn’t necessarily make email a less valuable tool… if we use it properly.

It’s unsurprising that, with social media so prevalent, I’ve been able to eradicate personal email 100%. The alternatives for personal communication are entrenched and obvious. Sharing is now such a well-known notion that the idea of emailing a photograph today seems crazy.

Every weekend I call my brother in Thailand on Skype and speak to him face to face. There’s no need to email, we talk like we’re in the room. The world of work hasn’t reached this level of evolution in the way it communicates.

Sharing a document via a OneDrive or Dropbox link, as opposed to attaching it to an email, is still such an out-there notion in business that people are yet to trust it en masse. Sure, most readers on Medium find file sharing second nature, but there’s a very large part of the workforce that doesn’t.

This is why, six months into my email experiment, I’m still sending on average 1–2 emails per day and checking my inbox twice. Until the alternatives are widely adopted (and appropriately used), email remains entrenched in the world of work.

The Alternatives Have the Same Problems!

In the early days, email was going to herald the paperless office — at best it’s paper-lite. Similarly, the new dawn of collaboration platforms is going to destroy email… is it really?

My friend Lee Mallon of Rarely Impossible started a #NoEmail drive in his company around the same time as I started my personal journey. He’s become a leading voice of the #NoEmail movement as it has started to gain attention in 2015 and has been interviewed multiple times by the BBC on the subject.

As much as Lee is committed to reducing email, he makes the excellent point that the much-touted alternative platforms such as Slack are merely platforms — it’s how you use them that counts. By flippantly over-using a Slack channel, it becomes email by another name. What we really need to focus on is our approach to communication — what needs to be communicated and how best to do it, rather than the platform itself.

When you identify the best way to communicate, the best platform for that action will become naturally apparent — if you open your mind and let it.

Why I’m Taking the #LessEmail Stance.

Here I return to two friends. I met both via social media and to this day rarely, if ever, email either of them.

Perry Timms created his own version of #NoEmail this year and started to run a zero inbox — leaving nothing unchecked, unactioned or undeleted each day. He’s found it to be very helpful to his productivity and, like me, he only sends an email when it’s necessary to do so, generally finding more appropriate methods of communication for every conversation.

Doug Shaw wanted to reduce email, but found a complete #NoEmail position impossible, for many of the reasons I encountered. The idea that we should dictate whether others are allowed to communicate with us in a certain way seems a little harsh, particularly when communication may be with a new client or contact.

It was in a Facebook conversation between these two that Doug coined the #LessEmail idea. Something less final and allowing for the fact that sometimes, email is just fine. I’m adopting that.

Over the last six months, my relationship with email has changed out of all recognition and I’m now confident I have the balance for myself and my work, while creating opportunities to help others rethink their relationship with email — and workplace communication in general. I’m proud to play my part in the #NoEmail conversation, but in all honesty I’m far more comfortable with the flexibility that #LessEmail offers.

When I consider everything, the single rule that defines this all for me is:

Use the most appropriate method of communication for every conversation.

Does it need to be any more complicated than that?

Follow my adventures rethinking work over at The Work Project.