What if I told you that you could invent a form of communication so uniquely disempowering that it would singlehandedly decrease your happiness and productivity? Would you introduce it into your life? Would you even bring it to work?
I've got bad news: it already exists, and it's called email.
At the start of the year, drowning in emails, I tweeted "the first Labour leadership candidate to abolish emails gets my vote". Totally facetious, but I know I'm not the only one who feels this way. According to the Harvard Business Review, emails take up 23 percent of the average employee's day. As far back as 2011, French IT company Atos announced a "zero-email" plan because it believed 90 percent of all work emails are pointless time-wasters that drain your emotional and mental energy and distract you from your actual job (I'm paraphrasing).
Email as we now recognise it (basically, with the "@" in it) was invented in 1971 by a computer programmer named Ray Tomlinson, with Hotmail launching in 1996 and Yahoo! Mail a year later. I imagine these were the halcyon years of email, when sending an electronic message to your mate was still cause for excitement. Now, it's 2020 and everyone hates them.
But did you know there once was a time when people who used to do your job without sending a single email? (Unless, obviously, your job didn't exist back in the 1970s, in which case: go back to vlogging.)
I wanted to see if this was still possible. Would quitting email make me a better, happier and more productive person? Would it make me a better journalist? I tried it for a week.
As a millennial who came of age around the advent of dial-up, I can't remember a time before emails were invented, so I ask my colleague Max Daly about it. He got his first job as a reporter in 1994 and only glimpsed his first email around 2000, while working at the Big Issue magazine.
"We had one computer in the whole office – I wasn't even allowed to touch it," he says. "I probably started to use emails properly around 2000, and at first I thought it was completely weird. It seemed almost like sending a letter – you had no idea if anyone would reply."
Sadly, anyone who's ever been chased by someone emailing, "Hi! Just nudging you on this," an hour after their initial email will know this is no longer the case. Emails are now inescapable. They used to be confined to our desktops, then they migrated onto our phones. You can check email on the toilet, but unlike sexting or scrolling through Instagram, that's not even fun when you're illicitly doing it on the job. If you've ever sent a thirsty email, you need to phone HR right now and hand yourself in.
So how did my job as a journalist work before email? "I spent about 80 percent of the day on the phone," says Max.
I dutifully stick on an out-of-office auto-response titled "Please call me" that will go out to anyone who emails me this week, with my desk phone number included. Then I just… wait. And wait. By midday, I'm panicking – nobody's called in. Does everyone hate me?
I figure the best way to this it is to call everyone else. I go through emails from freelancers asking for their number, and spend a highly productive streak calling everyone up to commission stories. I reason that this isn't cheating as I am, technically, facilitating calls. "Oh, I love calls," one writer says when I phone up. Another tells me: "Meeting people over email is such a bad idea – you never get to express yourself properly."
Chatting on the phone is objectively more fun than staring at an inbox, grimly ticking off replies on my to-do list. "You look very relaxed," my colleague Phoebe says at the end of the day. I feel it!
I've cracked, and checked my email – shameful. It's only my second day! On one occasion, I simply have to send an email – I have no other way to clear an article with the external legal team we work with. In the past, Max says, we'd have to fax something like this over. Unfortunately, I can't find a fax machine anywhere in the office, and it would cost too much to send the article over by courier.
But still: excuses. Today has made me realise how much I rely on email as a crutch for my own impatience and boredom. I'm all too familiar with the twitchy urge to check Instagram and Twitter, only to realise that literally nothing has happened – I didn't realise that I have the exact same impulse when it comes to my inbox.
On the plus side, my out-of-office response is working: a US editor dutifully phones me from New York the second she receives it. I've never worked with her before, and it's actually pretty nice to hear a voice down the phone, rather than a faceless email from across the pond.
In light of my shameful relapse, I decide to ask someone else how they managed my job in the years before email. Journalism lecturer Barbara Rowlands was in her forties when it was widely adopted, and was freelancing and shifting at a tabloid at the time. "We are wedded to our phones and therefore email," she says. "You feel a bit deprived if you're disconnected – that's slightly addictive."
"Another thing annoying about email is that you don't build up a head of steam on whatever story you’re on," she adds. "I think it backtracks your concentration."
I ignore my inbox to start on a feature I've been meaning to write all week. But I can't get that far because I now have to call loads of people back to follow up on the calls I made on Monday. Nightmare. But I do get an interesting insight into how other publications are handling calls and emails – an editor at a very famous title tells me: "They've taken away all our phones, so now we have headsets. You have to scrabble around and click yes on your computer. It's like a call centre."
I manage not to check email all day – success! People are also actually reading my OOO and are now calling me – further success! "I'm so intrigued by this experiment," someone says on the phone.
Then I have a streak of bad luck: I miss email notifications for a couple of meetings. Then, as I'm in meetings for about three hours straight, I miss a bunch of calls. How did people deal with this before? "Meetings just weren't really a thing – thank god," says Max. "Journalists were out of the office so much. And you couldn't be away from the telephone for too long anyway." Inspiring!
As a natural side effect of not checking email all day, I'm also staying off Slack – maybe my body's just weaned itself off the dopamine hit of checking messages in general. I've managed to edit a huge investigation and get started on another one – complicated stories with lots of data. Pre-email abolition, it would have taken me about a week to do each one, because I'd have been distracted by email and Slack notifications.
One side effect of this experiment is that I'm talking to my colleagues more – leisurely conversations in the kitchen, drive-by hellos in the corridor and one interaction with someone who says: "I got your out-of-office and thought, ' I'm so proud of her.'" I love my coworkers!
I go another full day without email, but everything's starting to slightly fall apart. People are either phoning me while I'm away from my desk or texting me on my mobile, which feels like cheating. There's also clear usefulness to emails that I didn't see before. In the pre-email 1990s, Barbara and Max tell me, people would send floppy disks in the post, turn up at the office to type an article themselves or dictate it over the phone. It seems insane to expect a freelancer to bear all these expenses or waste all that time in the post office queue or phone box.
So, am I more productive? Pretty much. I've been able to concentrate harder than I have all month, and it's made me realise my actual job isn't answering people's emails – it's actually commissioning and editing stories, none of which relies that much on making sure I get back to someone in 24 hours or less.
But it's impossible to quit email when everyone else in the world is still addicted to it. Tellingly, Atos's original experiment is a work in progress. Employees there still use email, but they've managed to cut usage by 60 percent – the average employee there receives 40 emails a week now.
"You can't un-email your life," Barbara advises. "You've got to make sure you only check it a certain amount – perhaps once in the morning, once at lunch time and once in the afternoon." Before I went cold turkey, the idea of checking emails three times a day would seem insane, but now it seems eminently sensible.
As for being happier – I was, until I check my inbox the following Monday and find 213 unread emails waiting for me.