How the AwkEng Coped with COVID in 2020 (by Ignoring Work Email)

Yes, it's been a year. In a way, it's been a good thing for me though, as I've developed a number of coping mechanisms that I plan to keep as habits for life. I have a morning routine that uses meetings for accountability, I hold daily walk-in virtual office hours, I figured out a way to organize my priorities that merges the physical and the digital, I go for a daily walk, I write and journal more often, I use a sunset/sunrise simulator to go to bed, and I now sleep in an adult sized swaddle (it's called a HugSleep) with a weighted blanket over it. Plus, I finally got a bite guard.

I could probably write blog posts about each one of those habits, but the most impactful thing I've done this year by far is to stop checking work email.

Hug Sleep

Email is Terrible

That's because e-mail is the f***ing worst. You probably know this intuitively, but after reading It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, Deep Work, The 4-hr Work Week, and others, I started giving serious thought to the impact of email on my day and started tracking that in more detail.

Turns out, that because I'm a program manager, people love to cc me "for visibility" all the time. That doesn't sound bad, but when you add 20+ years of legacy UI decisions to the dinosaur of a program that is MS Outlook, trying to read an out of context, backwards sorted email thread on an insanely technical topic, "for visibility" was a giant waste of time.

I was spending 45+ minutes a day, skimming things or backwards reading them, just to figure out that there was nothing relevant or actionable for me, and just deleting them (or marking them as read)! Almost an hour, just clicking delete and that's not even counting the impact to my attention span or focus!

I now had hard evidence to start getting rid of email.

Could I Go Full Nuclear?

The nuclear option is to delete Outlook entirely, (or better yet, ban it from your company), but I wasn't ready to go that far, just yet.

Here's what I still need from Outlook:

  • I still need to go to meetings, schedule them, and know when they occur, which requires that I open and use Outlook. This invites the temptation to check email, which is dangerous.

  • I also still check for email from my boss, his boss, his boss, and Jeff Bezos so that I can respond in a timely fashion, which usually means before I get a chat message or attend a meeting with any of those individuals. (Although, to be clear, I'm not meeting with Jeff that often). Again, needing to open Outlook to do this is beyond dangerous and actively destructive to my attention span and focus.

Could I Check Email Once a Day?

In theory yes, but in practice, popping open my outlook calendar to schedule something would send me down a rabbit hole of unread messages.

Are Inbox Filters the Answer?

I tried experimenting with email filters for a while, both filtering things out, and filtering things in. I tried a filter for messages addressed directly to me, or in the "cc" field, but there are too many automated systems at work that message me directly, and getting filters that didn't conflict with each other was a mess. Even with 40+ filters, it still wasn't working. Filters were just a symptom for the underlying disease. I had to address the root cause.

The Solution

So here's what I did:

  1. I set up a VIP folder with a filter to redirect messages from my boss, Jeff Bezos, et al.

  2. I set up a second inbox rule that marks all other email as read the instant it arrives and moves it to another folder.

This way, when I open up Outlook, I'm greeted with a happy little Inbox Zero message. I'm not distracted by little pop up notifications, and I don't have the nagging little number of Unread Messages showing in my inbox, which I found myself powerless to ignore. And I can still see unread messages from my boss and Mr. B, if they need to reach me.

inbox zero

  1. I also set up an autoresponder that says something along the lines of "Hi, I am no longer checking email. While some items will inevitably fall through the cracks, on net, analysis has shown that I'm undeniably far more productive this way. I remain readily and easily available, here's how to reach me..."

Item #3 above leads to my next topic.

Being Readily Available

Just because I don't check email, doesn't mean I don't want to be helpful, readily available, answer questions, etc. It just means changing how people work with me.

I now hold twice daily virtual walk in office hours, where I leave my video conference call open for people to drop in. (I work with people in both London and California time zones, so holding them twice daily makes it easier to be available to both place. Otherwise, I'd stick to one session.)

Sometimes, nobody arrives and I just use the time to plan my priorities for the day. Other times, people pop on to get a quick question answered, and I often find we can resolve a technical question in less than 15 minutes that easily could have been 4 or 5 back and forth emails that would have taken an hour or more to collectively type out. (Not to mention the inherent value in relationship building that comes from face to face discussion.) Rarely, multiple people "walk in" at once, in which case there are sometime serendipitous interactions, or someone comes back later.

In my experience, almost anything can wait a day, or half a day, until the next office hours, unless it's a true, absolute emergency, in which case, my cell phone still works. (And hint, true emergencies shouldn't happen often. I've received exactly one phone call in the last 4 months of doing this and it wasn't a real emergency.) And if you really can't make it to office hours, you can always schedule a meeting.

But What About Getting A Quick Answer to Something?

This is probably the most common question about not checking email or chat messages. What if someone is stuck and can be quickly unblocked with a quick question?

This is a fallacy of local optimization at the sacrifice of the global system. It is by far the correct decision to locally delay a single individual rather than experience the organizational congestion failure caused by splitting people's attention and redirecting it to scanning and responding quickly to incoming email. Which leads to another discussion of organizational meeting cadences, but that's for another day.

And again, in my experience, if left to their own devices, people are usually able to figure out something productive to do anyway. Waiting half a day or a day hasn't ever been a real issue.


After doing this for several months, I'm happy to report several things:

  1. I'm far more productive. I'm calmer, I have better focus, and I spend more time writing strategy documents, implementing processes that makes my team better, developing training material for my team, and in general, getting sh*t done.

  2. Nobody objects or is offended by my away message. People come to office hours unannounced and they enjoy it. Some people have even adopted the same practice! (Of office hours that is, still working on the no email converts.)

  3. People occasionally ask if I read the email about "X" or "Y". The answer is no, I haven't.

  4. I'm utterly convinced that stuff should either be documented (in a wiki, not in email), or discussed face to face. I don't mind discussion in chat, since we're all remote, but within my team at least, there's a collective understanding that it's not where truly important conversation happens, so it's not an issue. I have no chat room FOMO. This may be unique to my team.

  5. I still check my personal email, as it's not a flood of garbage, and Gmail is still pretty good. I have been experimenting with some Chrome plugins to limit when I can use it though. So if you respond to this email, I'll probably write back and within a day or two.

So learning to ignore work email has probably been the best thing I've done in 2020. And it's sticking with me through 2021. I hope you can do the same.

Best regards

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