WASHINGTON -- It sounded like a fun experiment at first: Get through a day of work without using email.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) does it every day. He recently said he's never sent an email in his entire life. He also doesn't use Twitter or Facebook -- his staff maintains his official accounts. He will read a text message if you send him one, but if he decides that it's worthy of a response, he'll call you back.
So if a U.S. senator can get by in 2015 with 1994 technology, surely a political reporter can do it for a day?
I gave it a go on Friday. It was an exercise in futility.
I'm embarrassed to admit how stressed out I already was the night before. I stayed up until 11:55 p.m., clinging to those final minutes of email access while polishing off a bottle of wine. I read through my inbox to make sure I had everything I'd need to work on a story the next day. I set up an auto-reply message saying I'd be off email on Friday, but still working, so people should call me if they wanted to talk. Or they could email Elise Foley, a co-worker who'd agreed to be my assistant for the day. Graham has lots of assistants, so I got one too. Poor Elise.
The first message I got Friday morning was from someone at the National Rifle Association. It was a text at 7 a.m.: "Yes. I am THAT guy. Intrigued by no-email Friday so I had to see if it extended to texts." Since I wasn't allowed to text back, I called. We talked about an upcoming gun convention while I ate my breakfast.
"Look at that," my partner said when I hung up. "Your day is already starting off like Lindsey Graham. Your first text of the day is from the NRA."
Elise was next. "Good morning senator," she texted. "You can't reply to this but [our editor] emailed and wants you to give him a call."
By the time I got to my office, I was feeling pretty good. The editor wants to talk? I'll call. My team needs to know what I'm working on for the day? I'll call Elise and have her send out an email on my behalf. I need access to certain emails for some statistics I'm trying to confirm? I'll just have Elise go into my account and get them.
But as I stood over Elise's shoulder while she went through my inbox, singling out which emails to print and watching new emails come in that I couldn't read, the inefficiency of it all started to get to me. And then the printer wouldn't work. So that meant I couldn't read hard copies of emails, which were on the screen right in front me, that I couldn't look at.
Eventually the printer started working again, so I sat down with my printed emails and began reading. It soon came time to send a tweet, which meant I needed Elise again. We logged in and got an automated response from Twitter warning of suspicious activity with my account. The only way to get into my account was to enter a special code -- a special code that was waiting for me in my email inbox. Ugh.
By now, it was late morning and I was already wishing I hadn't agreed to this project. Some swearing occurred. I decided to just get to writing, and started to open a Google document -- but then remembered I couldn't do that because it's connected to my email account. Google chat, which is how my co-workers and I talk throughout the day, was also off-limits. So if there was any good gossip, I was missing it. How does Graham keep up with gossip in real time??
I started writing in a Word document, and soon needed to reach out to some people at senators' offices and a judicial advocacy group. I talk to these people pretty regularly on email, but I don't have their phone numbers. I searched around on the Internet for their office lines, and called. In all three cases, I got voice mail. Their outgoing messages suggested that I email to reach them.
Two of the three called back later, and they both asked what the hell I was doing (I had left them long, weird messages saying I couldn't email for the day). They laughed when I told them about the Lindsey-Graham-for-a-day project. "It's a really, really terrible idea. This is like the freaking Sabbath," said one of them. "Well, it's nice to talk to you on the phone."
I spent most of the rest of the day being in a rotten mood and getting a fraction of my work done. Texts were coming in, which normally I'd respond to with a quick note. Now it would require directly calling my friend's 10-year-old daughter in Florida, who was just saying hi; my former partner giving me updates on our sick cat; and another friend who wanted to get a drink later. Not that I would mind talking to any of them, but I was in the middle of work. I had to meet with someone out of the office at one point, and I couldn't find Elise to tell her (I thought about firing her), so I told our editor, who emailed my phone number to the whole office in case anyone needed me.
I didn't end up publishing anything.
When I regained access to my email at midnight -- and I'm not proud of this -- I felt like a kid on Christmas morning. I sifted through my 400+ new messages and read through all the news developments I'd missed and tidbits I'd gotten from sources. My soccer teammates had also been emailing about celebrating Pi Day. I'd missed out.
Sen. Graham, for the love of God, get off your flip phone and give email a try.
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