It started off with a conversation like this:
Dave: “We are going to turn off access to your email while you are on vacation”
Me: “What?!??!! How much access? What about emergency issues?”
Dave: “Yes, your Exchange account will be turned off on the evening your vacation starts and then enabled again when you return”
Me: “What if a server goes down? What if a client needs something critical? What if there is a major disaster that needs to be fixed?”
Dave: “We will be fine for a few days, your only task is to document the process when you return”
So the journey began. I had always kept track of my email on holidays (not obsessively in my opinion) but in moderation to see if there were critical items that needed to be addresses by me. I mainly did this so that I did not have to spend one to two days digging out of a huge inbox collection that would build up while I was away. I also wanted to make sure that nothing was dropped while I was away and there would not be a huge issue awaiting for me upon my return.
As I was closing out items on my last day before holiday I went through the usual processes. I setup my out of office message informing anyone who contacted me via email that I would be unable to respond until I returned and to contact our main office if it was an emergency. I discussed with my team outstanding items and gave them my personal email address to contact me in case there was an extreme emergency. I went through my items in progress, help desk tickets and outstanding sales items. Everything was ready for the transition, except I received an emergency call from a client 20 minutes before the cutoff point. I started to work the issue and gave as much assistance as I could before rapidly writing notes to pass along to another sales engineer.
Into the Great Unknown
Then it happened…..
I received the personal email that my account was disabled. I immediately checked my accounts and sure enough, there was no access. Many things went through my head at this point. I could login with the admin account and simply turn my account back on with no one noticing. But in the spirit of the experiment I resisted this temptation. I did see that I still had access to my Skype and help desk accounts so I can check moderate things but overall my main email was now locked.
During the Lockout Period
After going through the entire night without email I awoke with a bit of panic. My usual morning routine is to clear out the email items that have collected the night before, issue responses and in general give a little maintenance to my inbox. It felt really unnatural to not start my day with an activity that I almost religiously do.
My wife was enjoying her morning coffee and in our conversation I kept bringing up the fact that I could not check in on things and did not know the status of certain items. My wife especially enjoyed seeing me squirm as she is very appreciative of the experiment. After about an hour or so, I started to do other tasks around the house and my mind slowly forgot about my earlier panic. By noon I was easing into holiday mode and things were getting easier and easier to forget.
By the time that dinner rolled around I started to feel the need to check on items. I work about an 8 hour time difference from our head office and the early afternoon to evening is when the most activity occurs for me. Again it really felt like an out of body experience. I actually opened my iPad and pulled my inbox down in hopes that a refresh would magically happen. It did not.
I awoke the second day still missing my morning routine but today came with more ease. Thoughts of checking entered and left my mind with not much distraction during my day. Since we did not have internet at the house where we were staying, I was only reminded of checking when my wife’s sister’s kids complained about not being able to check Facebook or download the latest app for their phone or iPad. We did go into town for dinner this evening and there was WiFi at the restaurant and made you could tell. EVERYONE had their phones out and were taking pictures of the dinner, posting them to Facebook and other services. Which makes me ask the question. Is is more important to have proof you did something than actually doing it?
I did not bring my phone but forgot that I had my Skype account installed on my wife’s phone. When she connected to the WiFi there was a message on that account. We argued about me checking it but I defended this by saying that I was still on the hook for personal email and did not have access the majority of the time and a Skype message counted as reaching out through personal mediums for a response. It turned out to be a client that I have a very good connection with (we had done business when he was on holiday earlier this year). He had a simple question that needed to be answered. I responded to him via personal email explaining my email situation and that I could get a response in the next 2 hours if he emailed me his question. He simply responded “It’s OK, it is not urgent and we will address it next week. Have a good vacation.” At that point my mind was completely put at ease that if the most crucial clients accepted I was away then everyone else probably did as well.
Bliss. Really that is all I can say. Things finally reached normality again and it felt like when I was a kids (when there was not or very, very, very, unbearably slow internet. Think BBS boards). We spent all of our time outside enjoying the weather at a nearby lake. We created games from imaginations and surroundings as well as remembering a few old games (for those of you who don’t know CUPS [not the printing service] ours was not as polished as the video though). Basically it felt like summer holiday should be. We also had some of the kids mention that they had not been able to have real conversations because either they or their parents were on their phone or tablet most of the time at home. There has been a recent video going viral on the web that I think does a very good job illustrating this point “I Forgot my Phone”. A large family cookout that night making Hungarian Gulyás certainly washed away any thoughts of checking email.
Anxiety. I thought I would wake up to the same euphoria that I had experienced the previous day but that was not the case. I had an uneasy feeling of anxiety about what was going to be waiting for me upon my return. Was there some big issue that needed my attention that had festered for a few days and was not wildly out of control? Was there a client with an issue that was probably small but due to my holiday causing additional wait time made their mood needlessly sour upon my return. Don’t get me wrong, my last day was still great but in the back of my mind I always had these feelings of anxiety creeping in.
First Day Back
As expected my inbox was stuffed full like a turkey on Thanksgiving.
Inbox count 1,186. That may seem extreme to most but keep in mind that part of my job is systems administration and I received a lot of status emails from the various services whether they are running correctly, have a warning or an error still report via email. All told when the service emails were weeded out I was down to about 350 meaningful messages. I had considered the “Email Bankruptcy”technique that Wired Magazine suggested but thought that was a bit extreme. Instead I took the time tested approach of pruning and prioritizing.
How to address them?
I was able to dig out to a relatively stable status in about 2 hours. I am sure things could be faster when I do this process again as I was doing things for the first time but all in all it was not that bad.
There are a few things that I noticed that I could do to minimize the impact of the email backlog the next time I am away. Here are some things that I will try in the future to reduce the total amount of email.
Success or Failure?
Overall I have to say that the experiment was a success. I learned a lot about the habits I keep as well as many things I could improve in my daily processes to be a more efficient user of email. It was not easy, that I have to say, but it was needed and in the end I became better because of it. There are a few items to address for the next time I do this experiment of if others try it.