What I learned from time away from the internet and email

Hey folks, I just finished January’s 30 day challenge: no news, no Twitter, fewer emails, and no social media in general. For February, my wife and I are trying a gluten-free, wheat-free month to see what that’s like.

Okay, so how was January? I started with a week completely off the internet, which coincided with a reading vacation. The fact is that I *love* to read. I averaged about a book a day for a week.

In general, when I wanted to hop onto Techmeme or Google News or Hacker News or Twitter/Nuzzel, instead I opened up my to-do list. As a result, I got a ton of stuff done in January. I quickly learned that if something important was happening, I’d hear about it from someone else.

The month off also gave me a chance to think about email dysfunction. I try hard to filter my inbox aggressively: I auto-archive almost all mailing lists, I don’t sign up for newsletters, and I filter out notifications from web services. Despite that, here’s what my inbox looked like when I got back:

- 258 email threads in my inbox (I had 20 when I left). It was a quiet week: the first week in January.
- 153 threads were non-Google email threads
- only 14 threads directly involved members of my team
- 8 threads that involved my manager or someone up my reporting chain
- 6 threads involving PR or legal in some way

As you can see, a huge issue for me is email threads that originate from outside Google–that’s over half the email threads in my inbox! I’m going to keep ramping down on responding to external emails, because replying to a private communication might help that person, but in the same amount of time I could make a webmaster video or write something more general that would help a lot more people. In lots of ways, email just isn’t scalable.

Added: Someone asked how I stay in touch enough to know what topics people care about if I’m not answering email. Sorry if I didn’t explain that clearly. I still see what people are discussing on SEO blogs and on the Google webmaster forum. I know the most recent trends in how blackhats try to spam Google–that’s my primary job, after all. I look through the questions and comments that people send me on Twitter. When I put out a call for webmaster video questions, I use Google Moderator so people can vote up questions that interest them. I keep an eye on what flavors of spam snake oil are being marketing to newbies on various forums (“I know Google pulled apart my last link network, but now try my Social Rank Tout Suite product! It will automate 100% of all of your link building!”). And lots of people at Google keep an eye open themselves and alert me if they see issues. So I feel like I have a pretty good feel for the pulse of what people are talking about; it’s just that I lack the time to have one-on-one conversations with every person that emails me.

Going away for a week is also a great way to spot emails you should have filtered but didn’t. For example, I had 8 automatic emails alerting me to various people taking vacation. People work hard at Google; I usually don’t need to know if you’re taking a day or two off. I found 4 other mailing lists I could auto-archive or unsubscribe to. In general, taking some time off provides a useful perspective on what’s waiting for you when you get back.

Is anyone else doing a 30 day challenge? What are you tackling?

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