Are you addicted to e-mail?

Culture and technology.
May 2 2007 6:30 PM

The E-Mail Addict

Stop using, start living.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

The Virginia Tech shooting drowned out what was, for many, the week's more personally disruptive event: On Tuesday, April 17, BlackBerrys in the Western Hemisphere ceased to function for several hours. Over on the tech site Slashdot, someone cracked wise with a line from Star Wars, saying the failure was "as though a million voices cried out and were suddenly silenced." A funny comment, but also strangely apt. Consider what Obi-Wan told Luke about the Force in 1977: "The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together." Now consider our feelings about e-mail circa 2007. It gives the manager control of his "direct reports," it keeps the worker tuned to his desk, it's full of life-altering possibility: a job offer, a response from a cute co-worker, a winning eBay bid. On a micro level, the outage made people briefly confront their BlackBerry dependence. On a macro level, it spurred those questions consultants like to ask: Are we addicted to e-mail? Is it counterproductive?

Near the center of this conversation lies Marsha Egan, a life coach and self-described "corporate escapee." In February, she sent out a press release asking, "Are you E-ddicted to your E-mail?" The release went on to describe Egan's 12-step program for curing your "e-mail e-ddiction." I e-mailed Egan to ask if we could discuss her program. She called me on the phone a few hours later. Because I prefer e-mail, I let the call go to voice mail. When I called her back, she explained that this was to be the 148th interview she had given on the subject. She had appeared on everything from Australian radio to the "German equivalent of Newsweek." So, lesson No. 1: The media are addicted to e-mail and to discussing e-mail addiction.

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I check my e-mail every seven minutes or so. Marsha Egan sets her e-mail program to check for new mail every 90 minutes. She calls e-mail "the silent corporate cancer," and that's just the start of her metaphoric arsenal: "It eats away at people's time, a minute at a time. I call it bleeding to death from a thousand pinpricks." Her calculation is as follows: "It's commonly believed and understood that it takes about 4 minutes to recover from any interruption. If the computer dings at you and you look 30 times, that's 120 minutes of recovery time. That's the crisis."

The first step to health is admitting that you have a problem, and then turning off Microsoft Outlook's automatic send and receive. The second step is very steep: "You must commit to emptying your Inbox every time you go in there."

Have you ever emptied your inbox? It's like hacking off a limb. With no e-mail to reply to, I feel a disorientating lightness. I am at loose ends and have no way to fill those little holes in the day. That's also part of the problem, according to Egan and her fellow productivity coaches. E-mail, which is innately reactive, has become the default method of "working." The idea behind emptying your inbox is to convert all those e-mails into actions. You're allowed to deal with any mail that will take less than two minutes to answer. Otherwise, you should file your outstanding messages into folders such as "Pending," "Reply To," "Archive," and "YouTube Links" and deal with them as a unit later, when you've mapped out your day and polished off those urgent TPS reports. Egan notes that people have a tendency to simply open their inboxes and scroll up and down for several minutes, knocking off two or three messages so they feel better. She calls this inefficient process "e-noodling." You get the e-idea yet?

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