Last week I ran into a problem with my emails. A Microsoft glitch meant that not only did I temporarily lose a large number of them, I was also unable to access Outlook for periods of time.

My first reaction was to panic. Like many of us, I’m sure, my inbox forms the hub of my working day. Through it, I action requests, schedule meetings and prioritise work. It is my to do list, my primary method of communication, and the anchor to which I return for confirmation and clarification. The idea that I might – even temporarily – be without all of that, was frankly terrifying.

A whole new way of working

But what could I do? While IT worked their magic, my options were limited. Like it or not, I was temporarily email-less. It was time to return to a whole new way of working.

As a (just-about) Millennial, when I started in my first job in 2003 email was already in widespread circulation. That notwithstanding, my first workplace was still getting its head around the transition to a fully electronic system of mail. It was certainly yet to become to default, and I remember as the most junior member of the team spending many hours logging and franking post, walking to other offices to set up meetings, or even hand walking memos across the large campus for delivery.

Getting our message across

What I realised, as I sat there last week, email-less, is that back then, we all put a lot more thought into our methods of communication. Email was just one element of the toolkit of communciations we had available to us, and we made choices based on the methods we believed would be most effective to get our message across.

These days, it is all too easy to fire off just another email. Who hasn’t found themselves victim to ‘death-by-email’, at the wrong end of an endless email chain with the world and their dog copied in? It hadn’t occurred to me just how much time I was spending managing my emails… until all of a sudden, I wasn’t any more.

Time to do

In an email-less world, I found myself getting up from my desk to go and talk to the person who sits at the other end of the office. If they were working from home that day, I’d pick up the phone. If I couldn’t get hold of them, I’d consider if I actually needed to contact them at all; if there was perhaps someone else who would be better placed to help me resolve the issue.

I stopped feeling like I was spending my day firefighting the seemingly never-ending stream of emails which arrived in my inbox. Without the constant popping up of that little message icon, I had time to think; time to plan; time to DO. How often do we leave the office feeling like we’re not sure what we’ve actually achieved that day? Emails, I have discovered, are a primary cause of that.

More highs than lows

It wasn’t all plain sailing. There were a few stomach-sinking moments when I realised I’d totally forgotten to do the thing I’d promised to do… because the reminder was sitting in my inbox – and I’ve definitely discovered that my power of recall isn’t all that when I can’t just go back and check what was previously sent. By and large though, being without my emails brought more highs than lows.

All good things must come to an end, and my emails are now fully restored. And, I’m not going to lie: I breathed a grateful sigh of relief when they were.

Remember to look up

But there are some learnings to be taken from my experience. How much of your working week do you spend grappling with emails? What could you be doing if you weren’t spending that time trapped in your inbox?

Is email always the best form of communication? In my experience, it has the potential to cause more harm than good if not handled with care.

And what is it stopping you from doing? If we spend all of our time communicating via email, there is a real risk that we forget to look up: to see, to think, and to take the actions we need to to drive our businesses forward.

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PS If you were expecting a response to an email from me and haven’t received it: now you know the reason why!