It happened with cigarettes. It happened with red meat. And carbs. And SUVs.
And now it’s happening with e-mail. The preferred communication channel of millions of Americans is no longer cool.
According to a growing number of academics, “technologists” and psychologists, our dependence on e-mail -- the need to attend to a constantly beeping in-box -- is creating anxiety in the workplace, adversely affecting the ability to focus, diminishing productivity and threatening family bonds. The problem has become so severe that a new crop of entrepreneurs has sprung up with antidotes -- which sometimes involve creating more e-mail.
Technology geeks who not long ago were comparing the size of their in-boxes as a gauge of Digital Age machismo are now attempting to wean themselves from Outlook and Gmail.
Behind the e-mail backlash is a growing perception that, despite its convenience and everything positive it has brought to work and leisure, the tide has turned, and now once-friendly e-mail is a monster that’s threatening to ruin our lives.
“It chases you,” says Natalie Firstenberg, a Los Angeles therapist who says the subject of e-mail has been coming up more and more in sessions with her clients. “There are no business hours.”
Timothy Ferriss, author of “The 4-Hour Workweek,” says that what’s wrong with e-mail is that it simulates forward motion but doesn’t necessarily mean action.
“E-mail is used as a self-validation tool by people to procrastinate and to re-create activity versus productivity,” he says. Ferriss, who says he used to receive “close to 300 e-mails per hour,” is now checking his personal account only twice a day.
Tantek Celik, a computer scientist who has worked for Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, Apple Computer and Technorati, a blog search engine, proclaimed several months ago on his blog: “EMAIL shall henceforth be known as EFAIL.”
As legions of “knowledge workers” vacation this summer, the question of whether to take along the BlackBerry is more complicated than ever. Do, and the vacation might not be such a vacation after all. Don’t, and you’re likely to return to an in-box that takes hours to clear or, worse, to the dreaded “your mailbox has exceeded its limits” message.
Meanwhile, e-mail, long hailed as a timesaving boon, has taken over the workplace like a midsummer algae bloom. Tony Wright, a software developer in Seattle who recently launched (in beta form) RescueTime, a program that tracks how users spend their time on the computer, has found that 38% of office workers’ time is spent on communication applications such as e-mail.
According to a report to be published in October by the New York-based research firm Basex, interruptions such as spam, other unnecessary e-mail and instant-messages take up 28% of the average knowledge worker’s day.
On top of that is what Basex chief analyst Jonathan Spira refers to as recovery time -- the time to get back to where you were before you were interrupted, which Spira says is 10 to 20 times the duration of the interruption. These interruptions account for up to 2.1 hours per worker per day. Multiply that by 56 million knowledge workers in the U.S., he calculates, and the cost is $650 billion per year.
Susan Jamison, 48, a commercial litigation partner at Coblentz, Patch, Duffy & Bass, a San Francisco law firm, is stressed to the breaking point. She sometimes receives hundreds of e-mails a day, she says, and most days she gets about 40 case-related notes, often with lengthy attachments.
“If it’s a multi-party case, it may generate maybe 20 e-mails from other people,” she says. “So as you’re trying to focus on it, you’re getting this ping-ping-ping as people are chattering about the e-mail.”
Even her phone calls show up on-screen as e-mails when she’s already on a call. How can she focus enough to write a brief?
E-mail backlash started in earnest last year with “no e-mail” Fridays at companies such as Intel, U.S. Cellular and Deloitte & Touche. But popular opinion has it that this turned out to be not much more than a Band-Aid.
More recently, the movement accelerated as a new organization, Information Overload Research Group, held a conference in New York. According to Vice President Deva Hazarika (who is also chief executive of ClearContext Corp., a software development corporation), the nonprofit group formed when a number of researchers, academics and software developers came together to discuss the challenges they were seeing in corporations.
“We all felt that information overload was something that was such a big problem that some companies were beginning to be aware of it but a lot of people didn’t realize the magnitude of the problem,” Hazarika says. “And we could increase awareness.”
Ironically, a number of the group’s members work for the companies that created software that caused the problem in the first place -- including four at Microsoft Research, creator of Outlook. E-mail, Hazarika says, was the conference’s main focus because it is “very much the primary cause” of information overload.
It’s also one of the worst culprits in a growing global lack of focus, says Maggie Jackson, author of the recently published book “Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age.”
“We’re highly connected,” Jackson says, “yet we’re connecting in thinner, more faceless ways. We experience fewer visits, fewer telephone calls, fewer contacts all around -- except e-mail. We’re subsisting on this diet of snippets and glimpses of each other socially.”
Nor is e-mail always friendly -- it can be confrontational in a way that talking usually isn’t.
“If we’re having feelings with someone else that we need to confront,” says therapist Firstenberg, “many times we’ll resort to an e-mail rather than take the risk of picking up the phone and calling. . . . It’s a very egocentric act. . . . It’s dumping. And it gets really misunderstood.”
Even if the e-mail is friendly, there’s still risk of offense if the recipient doesn’t respond quickly. Already feeling pressured to keep up with her in-box, attorney Jamison feels added stress from this kind of friendly fire.
“Less than half a day goes by and you’ll get an e-mail saying, ‘Why haven’t you responded to my e-mail?’ ” she says. “The expectation, because you’ve sent it, is the other person is looking at his screen all the time and his job is to look at his screen waiting for e-mails.”
According to Jackson, information overload is not just making life at the dinner table less pleasant as Mom checks her BlackBerry, but it’s also undermining civilization itself.
“We’re so overloaded by information bites that we’re less and less able to go deeply, to create knowledge or wisdom out of all the information,” she says. “This is one reason why I say we’re on the cusp of a dark age.”
Historically, dark ages have sometimes been periods of technical advancement, she explains, “but they’re ultimately times of cultural decline. I think we’re defining our own dark age by skimming along on the surface of life and relationships and thoughts. And it’s certainly a dark age when we’re faced with an ignorance born not out of a lack of information but out of an inability to create knowledge out of the information around us.”
Lately, a mini-industry has sprung up around finding solutions to e-mail overload. Hazarika’s ClearContext software firm has developed a program that manages Outlook, for example, offering features including a “do not disturb” button, an automated “unsubscribe” feature and an optimized folder filing system.
Another program, Xobni (“in-box” backward) determines the “hot zones” when a person tends to receive the most e-mail, then batches e-mail during those times and sends out an auto-response indicating the user is checking e-mail only at certain times.
Then there are those who are just throwing up their hands. Case in point: Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford University Law School professor and founder of the school’s Center for Internet and Society. Four years ago, Lessig reportedly declared “e-mail bankruptcy.” After spending 80 hours going through his in-box, he simply gave up and sent out an apologetic note to all his unanswered correspondents explaining that he could not respond. If they answered that note, he’d pay special attention.
Lessig could not be reached for comment -- not even by e-mail.
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How can a hapless e-mail addict wriggle out from under the weight of a bulging in-box? Here are some tips from specialists:
Turn off the alert noise. This can help you escape the addictive cycle of reflexively seeing whether something interesting came in and then creating more messages by responding or forwarding.
Limit the number of times per day you check your e-mail. “Whether it’s once an hour or once a day -- whatever works for you -- check e-mails at intervals as opposed to constantly reacting,” says Deva Hazarika, vice president of Information Overload Research Group.
Use clear, informative subject lines. “Hey” as the subject requires that someone open the e-mail to even know how to prioritize the message. But “4:00 meeting canceled” can be easily digested.
Clear your in-box frequently, and file e-mails into appropriate folders.
Keep it simple
Do not create too many folders. A 2000 study found that the more folders users had, the less efficient message storage and retrieval became.
Meet with your co-workers to discuss ways in which e-mail traffic can be reduced for everyone in your work group. That may mean avoiding sending nonessential messages, not sending “OK, thanks” notes that simply acknowledge receipt of a message, picking up the phone or walking to a co-worker’s cubicle when a subject is best handled in a conversation.
Respect your co-workers’ time and attention. Remember that notes sent to them may distract them from important tasks.
Use e-mail as a to-do list. This may seem counterintuitive, but according to a 2006 study at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, e-mail management techniques such as this “may moderate the relationship between e-mail volume and feelings of e-mail overload.” In other words, it won’t directly help your e-mail problem, but it will create feelings of control.
Don’t publish your complete e-mail address on blogs and other Web pages. Instead of firstname.lastname@example.org, use yourname “at” server.com or yourname (at) server.com. That way, robots that crawl the Web looking for e-mail addresses to spam won’t detect you -- at least until they figure out that people are using “at” or (at).
If all else fails, consider declaring e-mail bankruptcy.