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?

42 Responses to What I learned from time away from the internet and email (Leave a comment)

  1. Matt, thanks for sharing, I’ve done a couple exercises like this and found a lot of value in them.
    I went off the grid for 24 hours at SXSW in 2010: http://blog.smallboxweb.com/2010/03/16/connectivity-vs-serendipity-sxswi/
    and then for a week this summer:
    http://www.jebbanner.com/my-week-off-the-grid
    It’s a powerful experience cleansing your mind of technological toxins.

    Also, on the gluten free front. I’ve been gluten free for 6 months and can’t imagine going back. Here’s a post about that as well. I bet you’ll have a similar experience
    http://www.jebbanner.com/my-health-story

  2. very inspiring! i think more people can benefit from unplugging for a few days. checking your to do list in lieu of going on the computer is brilliant. going to implement that one every day!

  3. Joe Griffin

    Matt, you are an inspiration. Honestly this is one of my favorite blog post digests to read. Your 30-day challenges give me hope that I too can do anything I put my mind to. Great stuff sir. And btw, I think your thought about addressing communication in mass to help more instead of individually makes a lot of sense and is something I need to address as well.

  4. I’d be interested in reading more about your tips for managing email. I’m at the point where email is pretty much unusable due to the sheer volume.

  5. Serhii

    Hi, thank you for your 30 day inspiration. Me and my girlfrend are going to learn 3d modeling in Blender in next 30 days :D

  6. After this 30-days-challenge now it is a time for … a “pretty small” update.
    A lot of people have missed you, Matt :)

  7. I really wanted to give up driving into work, but we all know that you cannot do that. So, I actually gave up my smart phone. Went from a IPhone 4s to a Samsung slider phone.

    Usually the first week is the easiest but by second week in January you find yourself wanting it like a drug. Ever go shopping and look up prices at competitors on your phone while at the store, Yeah, that just tripled the time. Now you have to go to each store and compare prices or look it up at home online (no compulsive shopping). Or while grocery shopping you think “Hey I want this for dinner what is the recipe?” Now you are scrambling and asking complete strangers to look it up, because you do not want to make another trip in the sub zero weather.

    But what I did notice most of all was all the people engulfed in their own little worlds with the smart phone. Always texting, playing a game, talking on the phone with other people while in the presence of others. I actually was sitting next to a couple on a date and they talked to each other for 5 minutes and the rest of the time was texting.

    So with all this great communications and advancements in technology are we really pushing each other away from face to face social interaction? With more advances are we really putting ourselves into a jail cell that is our house and a computer. After this month I wonder if I actually acted that way but not notice because I was inside the bubble and not outside looking in.

    This month – No Shaving….lol what will the wife say.

  8. I’m so excited you are trying gluten/wheat free. I moved to that diet about 6 months ago for health reasons and it’s amazing how great you feel when you kick it out of your life. It’s terribly hard and I really miss pizza… but I will be interested to see what you think when you are done. :)

  9. Welcome back, Matt. I’d been keenly interested in hearing how this particular challenge played out for you. I used to take infrequent weeks “off-the-grid” from time to time (usually centered around no mobile use), but haven’t done one in a while, particularly not since I started having more contacts outside my work team.

    I agree with your tips for inbox management, I just decided to embrace inbox zero this year and had it going well up until last week when the number of exciting projects I’ve been working on started picking-up steam and I decided that working was going to trump organizing for a bit.

    Just finished my own 30-day stint where I challenged myself to only eat at locally-owned businesses, both to help my local economy and see how much better the service/quality was.

  10. Nice! I have just implemented a new approach here at the office: No Social Media at work. Instead, we focus on brainstorming, creative work sessions and mind mapping. Technology can sometimes be so intrusive and so counter-focusing that we need to discipline ourselves. Great post.

  11. Any new idea about your next 30 days challenge? I have taken the responsibility to improve nearby society people.

  12. Thanks for sharing your views !
    We all missed you , now lots of emails are unanswered so plz replay them.

  13. Taking some time off is a great way to appreciate life and get more things done.
    Personally i love reading as well, sometime we learn more, see more, feel more when we are away from the things that keeps us busy all the time :)

  14. Its interesting to see that you made it 30 days without the disturbing mediums.. I cant think of a day without the mediums.. As far as email goes, if you are working in IT – you just cant avoid it.. its part of the job..
    Hope you one day may get the opportunity to stay away from emails too..

  15. james

    this is pretty much my normal mode of internet communications. i only use facebook to upload photos. i never get messages because i’m pretty much forgotten and don’t participate in threads. the only emails i get from non mailing lists are occasional ones from family. i do not have a twitter.

  16. Hi Matt,

    You are so lucky. If I am not checking my emails for 3 days I have over 250 emails where off 70% is internal and the other 30% is external.

    Side note: I almost thought I was banned on twitter cause I did not get any more updates form your profile.

    Hehe almost had to get therapy for withdrawals, just kidding.. glad you back

  17. I tried the ketogenic diet (nearly no carbs) for five weeks. Within four days, I felt great—alert immediately after waking (no coffee), rarely hungry or hypoglycemic, and never an afternoon energy slump. I also lost weight despite double or tripling my meat/fat intake. The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living is an awesome digest of the history of and research on low/no carb diets, explains why you lose weight even when 60% of your calories are coming from fat, and why it’s good for your heart.

  18. Your post was enough big inspiration for me to start similar 30 day challenge today :) I just published my post about it http://www.jovicailic.org/2013/02/30-day-challenge/

    Thanks for the inspiration :)

  19. Your own Gmail claims for spam-free email services; however, what I see is opposite to it i.e. lots of spam and less of useful information. I wonder how my personal email is known to hundreds of people…..do you people sell them for some bucks.

  20. I’ve just completed my second 30 day challenge.

    The first was to avoid a certain website for 30 days, which I completed succesfully and I haven’t been back since. Sounds easier than it is, as it’s a news site, which updates at least every five minutes and therefore is perfect for small 1-minute breaks at work.

    The one I just completed was to run 100k in a month (a lot for me) and do 100 pushups and situps every day. The 100k was completed, but I had to give up on the other as midway through the month I became sick and couldn’t make up for it later.

    Next up: who knows, but it’s a good way of achieving goals, that’s for certain!

  21. Blake Newton

    Good luck with gluten free! I tried this and couldn’t even make it for 24 hours. So much gluten out there, even in things I thought would be safe, like cheese, soy sauce, and corn tortillas. I might try it again if you report a difference in your health!

  22. Glad you’re back!!

  23. 100% of all of it, eh? That’s even better than 100% of some of it!

    Where do I sign up?

  24. I think it will be very hard for me. As an Entrepreneur & Rising businessman I am responsible for a lot of duties. Its not about people need my help or my teams need my answer, its a lot more. But I agree 100% that emails really waste a lot of our time and working capacity. Last time when I was taking a trip to LA from Dhaka, during the flight I was disconnected for about 36 Hr. And when I opened my email I had almost 2000+ emails in my Inbox after all filters and auto archive.

    Probably better filter with auto forwarding, making more department to handle specific query and direct those mails to the responsible person of that department could help to reduce number of mails.

  25. I’m trying to cut out late nights, so bed by 9pm every night then up at 5-6am to get a few hours to startup work in before a normal day :)

  26. The greatest pain of using Google 2FA is that the AdWords Editor doesn’t play nicely with application specific passwords. It’s a huge, huge hassle. You need to have Google set internal standards that all their products work NICELY with 2FA.

  27. Thank you so much for sharing your personal experience and insights with us. Taking some time off is a great way to appreciate life and get more things done.

  28. I’ve been doing 100 pushups a day for the month of February. Been adding in some new exercises too.

  29. So it turned out to be a very useful experiment :)

  30. As you mentioned, it still really surprises me, that people are still pushing these low quality link building services. Worse still people are still buying them!

  31. You asked what 30 day challenges other people are dong… Last month I ate vegan (blog post coming soon), and this month I’m trying polyphasic sleep (hence why I’m up at 3am).

  32. Here I am again :) I finished my first 30 day challenge, and here are my impressions: http://www.jovicailic.org/2013/03/lessons-learned-from-my-first-30-day-challenge/

    Thanks for such a great idea Matt! I’m going with new challenge really soon!

  33. Matt,
    How come can’t we share your content on Facebook or other social platforms?? :)
    And who uses Google + ?

  34. Matt, This is amazing.. I mean how could you be able to survive without mails, social media and internet. I was very surprised to read the above article on how strict you were with your 30 days plan. I would say the best help you got is from your wife and team who gave your space :) You are a true inspiration to many of us! I will surely try to stay away from a thing for a month. Not internet ofcourse! Its very very difficult for me! :)

  35. The truth is staying away from your PC and phone for even 3 days would be in itself one hell of an achievement… leave alone 30 days.

  36. Raviraj

    Hey Matt,

    A simple question for you,

    How would you manage if there is an Google update and a situation like Interflora occurs.
    How the things would go if you are away from your PC and Phone calls.

    Just a simple question…..

    Regards

  37. Hi Matt,

    I understand what you mean about filtering email because I actually provide my email on the first page of my site for users to interact with us. The amount of auto-generated mail I get is unreal. I am glad to see you got a break from the grind. I hope you enjoyed it as I know how time consuming working online can be.

    Just though I would throw a “funny” in here. I had a dream last night about Google. You and a bunch of guys from Google had a party. The party was themed on jquery and I thought it was amusing. Anyway, glad to see your taking care of your health (I know my wife wishes I would do a better job of it).

    Hope the gluten free diet works out for you. Also, glad to hear you like to read as most do not relish reading, but rather view it as a chore. Hope you get another chance soon (unless it means reading spammy emails…ugh!)

  38. I stooped smoking for 30 days now i realize …i can do lots of thing than smoking times… thanks matts

  39. Egle

    Hi. I had no idea who you are until yesterday in my rss feeds I found the article in time.com called 10 YouTube Videos That Will Change How You Think. I decided to take a look – some of the videos I have already seen, others seemed too long and yours talk took only 3:28.

    And that time was enough for me to decide that I am going to try this 30 days challenge. Of course, I thought the best time to start – the beginning of August – new month, new challenge… When I told these plans to good friend of mine, all she said was: That’s stupid. If you are going to start – start now. If you don’t want to do that – stop making up silly reasons. So – here I am starting my first 30 days challenge on 16th of July. It is not beginning of the month and even not beginning of the week.

    I have four things on my list already, so that is enough for four months. One of the things – to write everyday. Well, this won’t be a book. Maybe more likely everyday journal since I have never been writer of fiction and prefer essays instead. I even don’t know if I should write in my native language (Lithuanian) or in English – both ways would be useful.

    So, the reason I am writing here – I decided the best way to start my challenge of writing – to write a letter to person who gave me the idea of all of this. Sure, I prefer writing to you personally to commenting in here, but I just googled you and the first thing I saw was your blog. You don’t give any contact information, so I decided not to waste my time (since I want to start my project asap) and just write the comment. I believe there is a big possibility you won’t reply to this, but it doesn’t matter. I believe you have receive lots of positive comments and hear people thanking your for introducing this idea. Anyways, more and more in my life, if I see person doing something brilliant, I try to say that to him or her. Even if it’s the millionth time he/she is hearing that.

  40. Good One!

    Very useful blog! Well, its a good approach to increase productivity. Usually, I turn off all the social media during work, which help me to concentrate on other things.

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