- Betty Liu, an executive at the New York Stock Exchange, once tried an experiment in which she didn’t check her email from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
- The experiment caused her to stay up late responding to the huge backlog of emails, and she abandoned it after one week.
- She did pick up one good habit from the productivity experiment: keeping a to-do list of emails to send and writing them all at once.
The average office worker receives more than 100 emails a day, and replying to every one of them could easily waste hours of your day.
But when one entrepreneur tried a radical trick to reduce her email time and increase her productivity, she found it was just too hard of a habit to keep up.
Betty Liu, the executive vice chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, said that for one week in 2016, she refrained from checking her email between the hours of 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.
“It definitely helped, but it wasn’t as much the resounding success as I thought it would be,” Liu told Business Insider. “I think I felt there were moments if I wasn’t on email, something would have just turned out very bad. So I think the aspiration was better than the reality of it.”
Liu said she got the idea from Tom Patterson, the founder and CEO of the underwear company Tommy John, whom she had recently interviewed for her company Radiate, an online library of educational videos about leadership and management. At the time, Liu was also an anchor for Bloomberg TV.
Patterson told Liu that when people email him during work hours, he simply doesn’t read them. Instead, they get an automated response that says, “I am currently checking email before 9 a.m. and after 5 p.m. EST so there will be a delayed response. If this is urgent please call or text.”
“It’s been great for people who know that I won’t respond for a certain period of time,” Patterson told Liu, she said in an article for Inc. “It makes people more comfortable. They stop wondering ‘Did he get the email?’ or ‘Did it go to spam?’ There’s more certainty.”
But when Liu tried the experiment herself, she encountered trouble right off the bat.
On the first day, although she did manage to go the full seven hours without checking her inbox, she discovered a “daunting” number of messages waiting for her when the clock struck 5 p.m. She wrote in a LinkedIn post that she didn’t finishing replying to them all until 10:48 p.m.
Worse yet, to outside observers, her absence from email chains made it look like she was slacking off.
“One of my colleagues asks if I’m enjoying my ‘mani-pedi’ time. It’s funny how people equate not answering your emails with goofing off all day,” she wrote.
On another day, once the 5 p.m. moratorium was lifted, she got so caught up responding to the backlog of messages that she missed a phone call she had scheduled. Later, after she went to dinner, she said she felt too tired to respond to more emails, so she had to put them off until the following day, adding to growing pileup.
Another day that week was “a total fail,” she said, as she had to “put out fires” all morning via email. Things only snowballed from there.
“Once I started to check email, I started to check social media,” she wrote on LinkedIn. “It’s as if my fingers automatically open up these apps once I touch my phone.”
That morning underscored one of the downsides to the experiment: Even though her automated email response told people to call or text her if the situation was urgent, very few of them did. In one case, an employee who sent an email didn’t realize the seriousness of their problem. It taught Liu that “urgency is subjective,” she said.
Although not checking her email during work hours was too hard of a habit to keep up, Liu did come out of the experiment with a helpful practice. Whenever Liu thinks to email someone, instead of stopping what she’s doing to type it out, she’ll put it on her email to-do list. Then, at the end of the day, she can bang out her list of emails at once, increasing her efficiency and reducing fatigue.
Liu has long since abandoned the email experiment, but to this day, she said she puts her phone down “for a few moments each day” to observe the world around her.
“You can waste a lot of time answering and waiting for emails,” she said. “Watching the outside world or feeling unhinged from your phone can be exhilarating.”