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.

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?

If you want the rest of the 12 steps, you will have to send Marsha Egan $36. When she gives her tele-seminars, people immediately pipe up that their companies would never let them ignore e-mail, even for an hour. She responds that some companies have a "toxic e-mail culture" and that change needs to come from the top. As you might expect, she's working on a new book, The E-Mail Pandemic, which addresses this very issue and its international consequences. The next question the attendees ask is more difficult: "How do I stop the e-mail from coming?"

It never stops, unless you stop sending it. I've noticed that people who give up e-mail for good tend to have a wonderful device that aids them with all of their communication: a secretary. Timothy Ferriss, a young productivity guru who wrote a book called The 4-Hour Workweek, suggests that you send an auto-reply to every message telling correspondents when you check your e-mail. (He likes to check once a day, in the evenings.) There has also been a mini-thread of bloggers and heavy e-mail users who have declared e-mail bankruptcy. They send out a note to everyone in their address book asking them to send fresh e-mails, as they do not intend to reply to any old, unanswered messages.

There's a ring of familiarity to all of this consternation about the "e-mail problem." As you've heard many times, new technology is greeted with anxiety. First, we negotiate how to use it. When the telegraph debuted, books were written about proper telegraphing etiquette. (Initially it was considered impolite to accept an invitation by telegram, but that later changed.) David Shipley and Will Schwalbe's new book Send: The Essential Guide to E-Mail for Office and Home is the successor of books such as John Hill's The Young Secretary's Guide (1687), which taught English clerks how to write acceptable letters at a time when postal service became widespread and affordable. Once we've mastered the form, what was once a convenient marvel proliferates and can become a painful burden. As professor Thomas Augst succinctly put it in his study of 19th-century American clerks: "To receive a letter is to incur an emotional debt." Today, scholars talk of the "communication enslavement" that occurs when someone sends e-mail to someone else.

All of the guides for writing effective e-mail, the strategies for firewalling your attention, the scare stories about parents turning their children into BlackBerry orphans stop short of grasping the essential e-mail achievement. It has erased the boundary between work and life. That's why we don't want to give up our inboxes. Sure, we're miffed when we check e-mail on vacation and get dragged back into work mode, but we just wanted to see if our friend sent us the photos, or if our broker has any new listings to show us when we get back. Not checking e-mail doesn't simply mean checking out of work; it means checking out of your entire social network.

Many people who are addicted to e-mail are more correctly described as addicted to work. Lots of e-mail makes you feel important. E-mail addicts (like me) fear the empty inbox and, strangely, the potential freedom that e-mail provides. A BlackBerry can make you feel accountable at night, but it also lets you say, play golf, while still monitoring any situation that might come up. When business is conducted through e-mail, it shifts the responsibility of actually working off of the physical setting of the office and back onto you. That lack of structure, or the need to provide your own structure, can be uncomfortable. Still, you often find confident people who are immune to e-mail addiction. They just don't understand what the fuss is about. They check e-mail when they need to; they turn it off when they've got stuff to do. It's a tool that serves them. They use the Force.

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