Category Archives: GTD

February’s Experiment: Call a friend or family member every day (and grow a beard).

January’s 30 Day Experiment was about drawing boundaries, living in the present, and giving my family my undivided attention. Eliminating distractions helped me really enjoy my interactions with people. So I decided to make my next experiment all about great conversations.

For February, I called a friend or family member every day. This was a daunting commitment, but I was excited to get started.

First, the data

I logged a total of 36 interactions:

  • I made 31 calls. According to my call histories, the shortest was 3 minutes, and the longest was 77.
  • I logged 3 days of in-person visits with family and friends from February 16-18. I didn’t keep time, so I conservatively estimated 60 minutes of conversation per day.
  • I had 2 in-person meetings with old friends on February 21 and 22. Those were windows between work meetings and I did log them.
  • My precisely logged conversations totaled 886 minutes. The total is 1066 minutes if you include my estimate of 3 days of in-person conversations over February 16-18

After completing each conversation, I recorded the date, person, a brief note, and time in minutes into an Evernote doc on my phone. There were a few multiple call days.


Here’s the raw data. I’ve removed the person I spoke with and the topic of our chat, since that’s private.

But what did I really learn?

I tweaked the rules a few times. First, I decided not to make calls on days when I was staying with family or friends, since I decided this would be against the spirit of the experiment. My goals was to have great, uninterrupted conversations, not make phone calls.

You might think it would be difficult to set aside 20, 30, or even 60 minutes per day to catch up. It’s really not at all. The tough part was actually finding people to fill those slots. For the first few days, I’d go through my address book and serendipitously place calls. I quickly realized that I wasn’t likely to succeed without some planning.

On February 5th, I went through Facebook contacts and dug deep into my address book that dates back to the late 1990s. I sent messages to 12 friends, laying out the experiment and asking for a 15 minute window. Here’s the note I sent.

So, I’ll cut to the chase. I just want to find out how you’ve been and share family news. I’m doing a 30 day experiment where I’ve decided to catch up with a family member or old friend every day in February. Rather than just drop in haphazardly, I’d love to schedule something. 10 or 15 minutes is fine. I certainly have a lot of family news to share, I’m sure you do too.

I’m pretty flexible during the day — lunch is free most days, and I’m usually free in the afternoon too. I’m usually knocked out 5:45 – 9pm EST with bedtime routine.

If you have any time this week or next, drop me some times and I’ll make it work.

(This is my second 30 day experiment. Last month, I limited email checking at work and did not use my mobile phone around the family. The former I will try to keep up. The latter is a permanent moratorium, and I’m happier for it.)

These were all old and dear friends, but even I was surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response. It was basically a form letter, but it was honest and compelling: hey, I want to talk to you. Let’s not waste small talk on email. Let’s catch up now!

My hope was 5 enthusiastic people, and maybe two booked slots. Within 24 hours, 11 of 12 had given me an enthusiastic yes and everyone wanted to talk within the next two days.

People want to Participate

One of my big takeaways is that there’s a huge potential for participation in experiments like this. My friends wanted to be part of my shared experience. There was a beautiful urgency too — only 30 days to be be involved. In most cases, we hadn’t spoken to each other in years. We weren’t going to let it go any longer. The chance to catch up, the time sensitivity, it was all as powerful and compelling as direct marketing, but it was purely in the spirit of sharing and joy. I want to keep thinking about this participatory aspect and how I can involve my friends more often.

A 5 minute call is infinitely better than no call

When you talk to someone regularly, you get to be involved in the daily aspects of their life. It’s obvious, I’d forgotten this, and rediscovered it accidentally while making a lot of late night “safety” calls to family to keep my streak alive. I learned about my brother’s new job, my sister’s dissertation, illnesses in the family, and I helped my mom make chili. These are the sort of random things you do when you see someone every week. It only takes a 5 minute call to stay up to date. It was really nice.

Listening takes practice

I did more listening than talking for possibly the first time in my life. Partly intentional, partly by accident. One consequence of doing a lot of catch-up calls was that I often repeated details — I live here, work there, married, have kid — and hence became acutely aware of how much time I spent talking versus listening. By mid-month, I’d become a stellar listener. I’m sure it can’t possibly last.

A few more highlights:

  • I caught up with my freshman year college roommate. We hadn’t spoken in almost seven years.
  • I spoke with a high school friend I hadn’t spoken with in almost 20 years.
  • I spoke with a college housemate I hadn’t seen in 3 years and my Atlanta housemate that I hadn’t seen in 5. Because of the calls, I was able to meet up with both of them in-person during a business trip to NYC.
  • My siblings and I really talked at Christmas, and February gave us a chance to keep it going. We discussed what we believed were the most pivotal times of growing up and why our family turned out like it did.
  • I spoke with a few new dads. One friend was recently engaged. Another newly pregnant.
  • One friend left his company and is moving his family cross-country to start his own firm.
  • I Skyped with my parents while reading bedtime stories to my daughter.
  • I caught an old friend at JFK, as he was about to board an overseas flight.
  • We stayed with old friends who recently moved to the mid-Atlantic and are new parents. We introduced them to another friend who has a child of similar age.

This was a very demanding experiment, but also a very rewarding one. Having family in the Eastern, Central, and Pacific time zones gave me some flexibility to make early morning and late night calls. I can see myself repeating it once a year or so. In the meantime, there are a dozen or so folks I wasn’t able to connect with, and I’ll be reaching out to them before I lose my momentum.

Oh yeah. There is one more thing…

I grew my first-ever beard. How is that related to calls? It’s not. I was a few days into February when a boisterous conversation on beards erupted on a Google Group I follow. Not having shaved yet for the month, I decided that a beard would be my backup in case I couldn’t stick with calls. Like a friendship, beards take time to cultivate. The best advice I heard when getting started was “Don’t shave.” BEHOLD!


I’m completely hooked on 30 day challenges. They are, as Matt says, life-changing. 30 days is short enough to commit to something difficult and ambitious, but long enough to experience real self-discovery. Both in January and February, where I ended up was different than where I began. Both months have been full of wonderful surprises.

So what’s next for March? I do want to build on the themes of changing the way I interact with people. January was reclaiming time and learning to “be there”. February was use that reclaimed time for deep conversations. After catching a glimpse of what it’s like to be a good listener and deliberate on my own words, I really wanted to try an experiment in introversion, with constraints on how much I communicate. The more pressing deficiency in my life, however, is my physical health and happiness. I used to be much more active and I ate better and slept more. So that’s March. I’ll see you back here in 30 days.

30 days to tame email, mobile distractions, and live in the present

I ended up working a lot over my winter vacation. I was already planning to implement Inbox Zero when I returned to the office on January 2, but one incident crystallized it for me. While I clacked away on my laptop on Christmas Eve night, my daughter walked up to me and said “I have a computer too”. She held up a small laptop she’d made with paper and crayon. It was both adorable and sad. I snapped a quick photo with my phone and *then* put away electronics for the evening.

I decided to undertake a 30 Day Experiment for the month of January. I would restrict email checking to a few times a day and avoid all mobile phone usage while with my family. My goal was to “be there when I’m there” and enjoy myself. Our periodic Serendipity Day hackathon was starting on January 2, and I used that time to kickoff my experiment.

How it went down

I started with a haircut, since that always makes me feel more organized. When I returned, I nuked my inbox. There were 2,619 emails in my main folder (That’s after archiving 6,000 messages just a few weeks prior). I moved everything older than 30 days into an “Inbox Zero” folder, which took me down to 214 emails. I then set an email away message:

Happy New Year! As part of a productivity experiment, I will only be checking email late morning and early afternoon. If you have an urgent matter, call me (gasp!) or walk over.

(Note: for several years my voice mail greeting has stated that I never check my phone, therefore you should email me. So if you tried to reach me in January 2013, I effectively dumped you into an infinite loop.)

I wrote out the ground rules of my 30 day experiment and spent the rest of the afternoon preparing:

  • Inbox Zero and limited email checking at work
  • No mobile usage around my family
  • Find little ways to have fun at work, since I’d blown my vacation and the next is a long way off

I’m exceedingly lucky to be able to do something like this. I’m not the one they call at 4 AM when a server crashes. It’s a luxury.

The next morning, I committed to not check email before 11. This was insanely difficult. I met a friend for coffee, rolled in late, and then I baked a loaf of bread in my cubicle, because 1.) bread smells delicious, and 2.) I didn’t give up carbs.

Cubicle bread! This machine was my alarm clock when I lived in Chicago.

Cubicle bread!

What I Learned

My first email check was 11:15 AM and I was ruthless: DELETE. DELETE. DELETE. DELETE. MOVE TO ACTIONS FOLDER… When I hit my stopping point I closed Mail and didn’t check it again for several hours, and that made my day lovely.

Here are some of the things that worked for me:

  • I set an arbitrary cap of 30 minutes per email session, which I rarely exceed.
  • Checking email was really intense for the first few days, but the sooner I got through it, the sooner I quit my email application and then the bliss set in.
  • I challenged myself to unsubscribe to at least one email subscription a day for the first week.
  • Many emails only need a simple one or two sentence response such as “I didn’t work on that project, try asking [NAME].”
  • I close short emails with “Thanks!” or something similar so I’m not misinterpreted as a grouch.
  • I use Mac Mail and iCal instead of Outlook, which means I can have my calendar open without having email open.
  • I informed my colleagues that I’d nuked my inbox and asked them to remind me of any outstanding items
  • I already had several inbox routing rules. I added more until things became manageable.
  • Semi-related: I switched to a standing desk a few months ago and find it much easier to focus on single tasks. I also use Getting Things Done and Evernote to stay organized.

Some tactics I didn’t have to use, but you might find useful:

  • Creating templates for commonly sent emails.
  • Telling someone their email was too long and asking them to summarize it.

In the past, I never let email stress me out, nor did I ever try to use it as a to-do list (that is a bad idea, by the way. ) I viewed email volume as something I had no control over, therefore I didn’t try.

I now see that while email wasn’t stressing me out, I was wasting a ton of time re-reading messages. It wasn’t until I got my inbox under control that I realized how many important messages were falling through the cracks. I still haven’t hit Inbox Zero, I fell off the wagon a few times, but overall feel better and am more productive every day.

Unplugging at home is much more difficult because it’s about a mental state. The technique I chose was prohibition: I kept my phone in my pocket, or on my desk in the charger. That’s it.

I still zoned out and thought about work, though it was more difficult for my daughter to notice without my phone in my hand. Fake it until you make it. The email twice a day rule made it easier to not pick up my phone. Once the phone is out of the pocket for an email or weather check, it’s on to social media, and the death spiral begins. My social media interaction was so much lower this month that I’m sure I did miss some timely news and conversations — though I missed even more boondoggle time.

I’ve had some really genuine, awesome moments with my family this month. We listen to music, make art, and have conversations. We play together at the playground while other parents are on their phone. I walk her to school or head to the grocery store without my phone. I’m very glad to have the capabilities of mobile Internet technology but also delighted to be able to walk away from it.

I’m going to continue to tweak and refine my restricted work email and mobile abstinence experiments. They weren’t meant to end after 30 days.

Over a dozen friends and colleagues reached out after seeing my away message. Many were already grappling with email. One had hired a personal productivity coach. We’re leaning on each other for ongoing support.

I got a lot of free advice from Brian Fitzpatrick, Vanessa Fox, and all of the other attendees at an unconference session on unplugging. Many of my the ideas and tactics above came from that session or followup conversations.

If you’re thinking about something similar, my advice is to start sooner than later. The 30 Day Experiment is a low-commitment way to jump in. Start with Matt Cutts’ three minute TED Talk below.

Finally, my second 30 Day Experiment (28 days, really) is underway! I’m calling a family member or old friend every day in February. This is tough and it helps that most of my family is at least one time zone behind me. I’m excited to see where this one goes.

Update 2/5/2013

I’ve heard a lot of great feedback on this post. I’m going to make the mobile moratorium around my family permanent. That was mentally difficult but I can sustain it. Limited email checks at work is more difficult. An aggressive goal works over a short period of time, but over the long run, it’ll only motivate me if I can hit it more often than not.

There are days when two email checks isn’t feasible. Sometimes my most important tasks involve email correspondence. Sometimes task details are buried in an email. I try to mitigate those situations as best I can: stop the email thread and call a meeting. Or open up email quickly, grab the note I need, and shut it down immediately. In the case of January 16th (referenced in my tweet above), I spent half the day on email. That’s really, really rare. I often work after my family goes to sleep, and that can also mean an extra email check at night. Right now, two checks is working. I’ll continue as is and reevaluate each week.

Yesterday was terrible, but I managed with two checks. Today, it’s been a breeze and this happened:

Email and mobile use both are intertwined, and both invade my mental space when I don’t clamp down. I’m glad I limited both at the same time.

Some related reading:

Matt did a far more ambitious unplugging experiment this month: 30 days without news or social media.

My three minute presentation at Serendipity Day