Cutting down on e-mail

Apple\'s Mail icon, the ultimate visual symbol of e-mail
Apple's Mail logo

How big of a problem is e-mail overload? An increasingly big one, judging by the number of articles I’ve read recently dealing with sandbagging the e-mail flood. A good is example is an article in the New York Times by IBM employee Luis Suarez, who became fed up with spending hours catching up with e-mail every day. Suarez decided to find alternatives to e-mail, such as instant messaging and posting answers to coworkers’ questions to an internal blog at IBM — and of course he’s picking up the telephone more now than ever before. He’s found that his new approach has increased the usefulness of his work to other IBM employees who visit his blog and browse his shared files.

Is e-mail a problem for me? Since starting my new job at the university, it has beeen eating more and more of my time. People down the hall send an e-mail instead of walking over to your office or calling you on the telephone — somehow sending an e-mail to someone a few doors down is seen as less standoffish than calling them from a similarly short distance away.

On top of that, I communicate across campus with my colleagues in the College of Engineering, which to me seems more reasonable since they are way over on the other side of campus. Yet my telephone still sits on the corner of my desk begging to be used.

I suppose that part of the fear of using a telephone is that the person you call might not be there. Is there something subtly embarassing about calling a person and receiving no answer or going through to voicemail? Then, when you’ve left them that voice message, what guarantee do you have that they’ll ever even listen to it? Consider, for example, that I’m the kind of person who calls someone straight back rather than listen to their voicemail — this applies only to my personal cell phone, by the way. Would you feel comfortable leaving me a message on my phone knowing that there’s a good chance I’ll never listen to it?

Also, there’s the time factor. It takes longer to listen to a voicemail than it does, seemingly, to read an e-mail. However, as all the time management experts say, that time savings doesn’t mean anything if you’re checking your e-mail more than 100 times a day. Like the mouse who tried to eat an elephant, the small bits add up after a while.

Solutions? Declare so-called “e-mail bankruptcy” and wipe my inbox clean, hoping that the people who really do need to get in touch with me will send a follow up e-mail? As author Randall Stross has written, that doesn’t do much but buy you time before your inbox fills up again. You’re back to the same problem again, and declaring bankruptcy over and over again kind of withers its significance.

The other solution, that many are now suggesting, is that we only check our e-mail once or twice a day. Take a stand against those who demand an instant reply and force them to pick up a phone if they need instant gratification. Can I do this? Do I need to? Completely separate questions. Right now, I don’t strictly need to resort to such a 19th Century solution, but that time will no doubt come. Then the question remains: will I be able to do it? Can I break my wired addiction and overcome the urge to instantly deal with any e-mail that comes in…?


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