A growing number of academics say it's diminishing productivity, and the problem has become so severe, some entrepreneurs are offering antidotes.
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 inbox — 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.
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Technology geeks who not long ago were comparing the size of their inboxes 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 social situations, 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 vs. productivity,” he says. Ferriss, who says he used to receive “close to 300 e-mails per hour,” is now checking his personal e-mail 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 inbox that takes hours to clear or, worse, 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 percent 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 company Basex, unnecessary interruptions such as spam, other unnecessary e-mail and instant messages take up 28 percent of the average knowledge worker’s day.
Add to that 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 they cost $650 billion per year.
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, it 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, 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.”
Global lack of focus
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 who work for Microsoft Research. 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.”
Not always friendly
Nor is e-mail always friendly — it can be confrontational in a way that talking face to face, or even on the phone, 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, say, the recipient doesn’t respond quickly enough.
Lately, a mini industry has sprung up around finding solutions to e-mail overload. Hazarika’s ClearContext Software has developed a program that manages Microsoft Outlook, for example, offering features including a “do not disturb” button, an automated “unsubscribe” feature and an optimized folder filing system.
Another program, Xobni (“inbox” spelled backward) determines the “hot zones” when a person tends to receive the most e-mail, then it batches e-mail during those times and sends out an auto-response indicating that the user is checking e-mail only at certain times.
Then there are those who are just throwing up their hands.
Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford University Law School professor and founder of the school’s Center for Internet and Society, four years ago reportedly declared “e-mail bankruptcy.”
After spending 80 hours going through his inbox, he gave up and sent out an apologetic note to his unanswered correspondents explaining that he could not respond to them. If they answered that note, he’d pay special attention.