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No Email Day? No Point, No Way

A handful of frustrated, well-intentioned, but ultimately misguided souls have declared December 12, 2012, to be the second annual ‘No Email Day’. On this day, they are encouraging people to give their email systems a rest, and concentrate on the so-called “real work” they fear has been shunted aside by the flood of email.

I suppose this might be helpful to those who struggle to manage their own priorities, or who are addicted to their email systems the way their children are addicted to computer games. But even if you agree that many of us have a problem with overuse of email, a one-day hiatus is little more than a gimmick that fails to address any real underlying problem.

The big, complicating truth is very simply stated: email is extremely useful. If you take a day off from your addiction to PlayStation, there are unlikely to be any negative consequences, and you might really have more time for things you consider important. This is true because there is nothing fundamentally important, or useful, in your use of PlayStation. Similarly, a day’s abstention from your addiction to alcohol, caffeine, or online porn is unlikely to cause you any new problems (beyond the pain of withdrawal), because these addictions were never productive to begin with.

Giving up email for a day is another matter. You could well miss an important message from a customer, a partner or a colleague. The fact is that in today’s world, a huge chunk of our work is done by email. The time we spend on email isn’t all wasted — for most of us, I think, relatively little is wasted. It’s the same work we used to do in other ways, made more efficient and collaborative by email technology.

Americans spend an average of 2.5 hours per day in their cars. During this time, they can’t generally read or type, and they converse on the phone at their own peril. But a “no car” day would turn most people’s lives upside down for no reason. They couldn’t get to or from work, they couldn’t pick up their kids at school, and they couldn’t go to the grocery store or the fast food drive-through. For most people, spending 1/7 of their waking hours in a car isn’t a problem, it’s a convenience or a necessity.

Email isn’t really all that different. Many of us now spend more than half our work day sending and receiving email, but somehow our jobs are getting done, generally more efficiently than in the pre-email era. The average employee isn’t spending much time on frivolous, non-work email, but is instead being more productive than he / she could be without email.

I’m not saying there mightn’t be problems with the way your company uses email. Just as it might make sense to move closer to work and use your car less, it might make sense for you to pick up the phone sometimes rather than type another email. But a one-day boycott of an essential technology won’t solve anything; the problem will return the next day, slightly worse for the addition of a day’s backlog. It will no more fix your email frustrations than a day without alcohol will fix the problem of drunk driving.

A day without email in today’s world is about as meaningful as a day without typewriters fifty years ago, or a day without pen and paper a bit further back. In each case, the technology isn’t the problem, and can be used wisely or foolishly. The energy going into “no email day” could instead be devoted to using email more efficiently. This can be done with a host of techniques, both technical and operational. But no course in how to make better use of email is likely to recommend a day of abstinence followed by a return to the status quo.

If email takes up a huge portion of our day, that’s because it’s the most useful way for us to get many things done. I’ve no doubt that it can be frustrating and inefficient for some tasks, but the answer is to learn to use it better, not to take a day off and then return to business as usual.