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In(sane)-box

A growing movement says out-of-control e-mail is now a monster that's ruining our lives.

July 31, 2008|Leslie Brenner | Times Staff Writer

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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, August 02, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 92 words Type of Material: Correction
E-mail: An article in Thursday's Section A about a backlash to e-mail said that the research firm Basex calculates that unnecessary e-mail and instant messages take up 28% of the average knowledge worker's day, and that this did not include "recovery time." The worker's recovery time -- the time it takes to resume work at the point it was interrupted -- is actually included in the 28%. In addition, the article stated that Basex's calculations will be reported in a study to be published in October. The study was published in 2005.

"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."

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