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E-mail: Freedom or Jail?

Are you ready to send and receive ten times as much e-mail as you do today? Probably not. We all need to adopt e-mail survival strategies: birth control and euthanasia.

If you are a newcomer to the Internet, one of your first proud pleasures is the exchange of e-mail. If you are an old hand, you are probably lamenting the daily assault on your time, and are scrambling to reduce it. New or old, you are headed for a tenfold increase in received messages during the coming decade, as the number of interconnected people grows and as each person and organization increases their use of e-mail. You are also headed toward new capabilities-maybe at the extreme, skydiving in your goggles and body suit and e-mailing the experience to your friend, who will play it back through her e-mail apparel! But exciting as future improvements may be, they will be dwarfed by a present, real and growing overload.

Every piece of e-mail you get demands attention, be it a second to trash it, or 15 minutes to compose a reply. A normal person needs an average of two to three minutes to process a message. If you only get one or two messages a day, you have no reason to worry, even under a tenfold increase. And you probably treasure the ability to communicate with others. For many people who are alone, or live far away from loved ones, e-mail is a godsend.

But if you spend 45 minutes a day handling e-mail today, the coming increase will require eight hours of your daily attention, leaving no time for any other work. This may still be appropriate if all you do is message handling. But if, like most people, you treat e-mail as auxiliary to your main work, you can’t let it exceed 10 percent to 20 percent of your time, in other words, an hour a day. If you are near this load level, as most people I know seem to be, your e-mail will explode past what you can tolerate.

What are you to do?

You can begin with a mixture of technological and human procedures. Stripped of fancy descriptions, this medicine amounts to two options: birth control at the source, and euthanasia at the destination!

Responsible e-mail behavior starts by avoiding the “look Ma” syndrome-sending messages and copies to show off, or to ensure that everyone remotely interested stays informed. Prolific e-mail authors should think of each message they send as an instrument that reduces the recipient’s life by two to three minutes. They should send it only if they judge that the effect justifies the cost. This may sound unreasonably harsh, especially since all human work involves invasions into other people’s time. But e-mail differs from face-to-face encounters where everyone’s time is equally taxed. That’s because with only a flick of a finger you can send copies to a huge number of people: If you take 15 minutes to compose a message and send it to 60 people-a common situation with preset mailing lists-you will be taxing the recipients by two to three hours, while taxing yourself by fifteen minutes.

Besides through thoughtfulness, e-mail birth control can be achieved with office procedures, like an easy-to-use and socially accepted method for getting your name permanently removed from mailing lists; or a prize for the worker who, in the eyes of fellow employees, exhibits the “best e-mail behavior.”

More can be done at the destination: Filters, built into mail-handling programs, can let people designate what messages to throw out, or channel to other people automatically, based on sender’s name, topic or other such information. Unsolicited e-mail may be placed in suspense mailboxes and reviewed at a later time, or not at all, or until and if a second request is received from the same sender. Requiring that all telemarketing e-mail be tagged, for example with the new metadata capabilities of the Web, would be another good way to control unsolicited messages, not only for blocking them but also for letting through the ones you want.

Even as it overloads us, e-mail helps us work better, receive the opinions and suggestions of our peers, and assess the pulse of our organization. To sustain these benefits while increasing my own productivity, I have constructed an array of electronic pushbuttons, using a program called Quick Keys. Each button inserts a preset message informing the recipient of my conclusion or question, forwards the annotated message to the designated party, and removes the mail from the incoming message queue-all with one click. As a result, my per-message average has dropped to about one minute. Measures like these can be helpful, but only for the short term.

For the long haul, we must go beyond all of the above tactics to understand and follow this basic principle:

Just because we have become electronically interconnected, we have not acquired the automatic right to send a message to anyone we wish, nor the automatic obligation to respond to every message we receive.

Ultimately, if e-mail overload becomes intolerable, “survival” will kick in and we’ll trash everything in sight, as we should. After all, the principal role of information is not to be an end goal, but a means toward satisfying human needs and purposes. Let’s keep it that way.

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