Those who email Audie Chamberlain may get the impression that he’s on a permanent holiday.
That’s because for two years an out-of-office reply directs anyone who emails Chamberlain to text him or email his business partner instead.
But he’s far from slacking. Behind the scenes, Chamberlain, chief executive of Lion & Orb, a public relations firm in Denver, Colorado in the US, has sworn off email. You read that correctly. Chamberlain doesn’t do email.
It’s so liberating
Instead, he uses text messages or phone calls to conduct the bulk of his communication—even for work. He carries two phones, so he can separate his social media accounts and photographs from another phone that he uses for texts and calls.
The result: He operates mostly laptop-free. “It’s so liberating,” he says. “I feel like it has freed up my time to think and have more meaningful conversations.” It’s also a benefit to his clients, because he’s instantly available to check and reply to texts or phone calls during most of his waking hours, he adds.
Many of us dream of stepping away from our inbox—or even perhaps electronically blowing it up. And, anecdotally, it seems some of us are actually doing it, logging off for good or purposely logging off for hours at a time, limiting the number of times email is checked or directing people to contact us elsewhere altogether.
Higher email use is associated with lower levels of productivity and higher levels of stress
“I make sure [the email] is not urgent and [then] ignore it,” says Mubs Iqbal, 42, a web developer in Clifton Park, New York, in the US. who in the past year has started using a mix of Slack, Hipchat and Facebook Messenger for his main modes of communication with work and friends.
The idea, say those who are eschewing email, is to have more time for other types of work and communication. In fact, higher email use is associated with lower levels of productivity and higher levels of stress, according to Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California Irvine who was the lead author on the 2014 study with this finding.
On your terms
While Laura Belgray, founder of copywriting firm Talking Shrimp hasn’t ditched email completely, she’s experimenting with responding on her own terms. After attending a productivity workshop in January, Belgray, who lives in New York, now doesn’t respond or check emails until 11am each weekday and noon on weekends. The two hours of her day spent away from opening her email is now used for uninterrupted writing. Crafting email responses “can derail you completely,” says Belgray.
Text messaging apps can be just as distracting as emails
To be sure, text messaging apps can be just as distracting as emails, though they often require shorter, less formal responses, which can be dealt with more quickly, says Iqbal, the web developer.
The move to instant communication means that he’s less obsessed with quickly answering emails or keeping his inbox open. Email “is more of an aggregation tool now,” says Iqbal. Though he does go through the email subject lines in his inbox about once a day, he often replies back to via the messaging apps.
Not all of us need to quit for good—and many of us can’t do that anyway. Simply taking time away from answering emails can help reset a routine, says author Jo Piazza, 36, who took time away from her inbox while on deadline for a book project last year.
To keep emailers at bay, Piazza set up an automated away message saying that she’ll respond later in the evening or the next morning. The action helps her to write uninterrupted during the workday without managing the dozens of emails she receives for her digital consulting business and from friends. “I felt that I had to start policing emails as they were coming in,” says Piazza, who wrote How to Be Married and is based in San Francisco in the US.
At first, both Piazza’s friends and business associates would skirt the automatic response by contacting her via text or Facebook. “Some people just ignored it and would start texting me,” she says.
Those … disappearing off email should prepare for the backlash
But after a while most understood that they couldn’t expect an immediate response, she says.
Nowadays, she responds to most emails at night, but uses the app Boomerang which helps her schedule emails for a specific date and time. Piazza prefers to send hers out mid-morning when most people are at work and expect to be disturbed. The process, she says, “has made me more thoughtful about [using] email.”
Those who experiment with disappearing off email should prepare for the backlash, warns Chamberlain. When he first decided he didn’t want to log into his email account, an out-of-office response told the user that he’s “just not here anymore” rather than directing them to an alternative, which caused confusion and negative reactions among some clients.
“It was so shocking that I took it down,” he recalls.
The more gently worded automatic response he now uses, which directs emails to his counterpart, was a better fit, he adds. A business card that he had made in 2015 also leaves his email off the card. In lieu of the email, he provides his cell phone number for texting.
After a year of using out-of-office replies, Piazza, the author, says that she gets fewer emails because business associates anticipate delayed responses. Even though she doesn’t put up her away message as often, the experiment has had long-term benefits. “After a while it almost trained them to be sending me better and more efficient emails,” she says.
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