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This is Your Brain on E-Mail

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If the medium is the message, what does that say about new survey results that found nearly 60 percent of respondents check their e-mail when they're answering the call of nature?

- Michelle Masterson, Channel Web

Are you part of that 60 percent?

Does this description of the average corporate worker from John Freeman sound like you?

"The average corporate worker now receives upwards of 200 e-mails per day. The flood of messages is ceaseless and follows us everywhere. We check e-mail in transit; we check it in the bath. We check it before bed and upon waking up. We check it even midconversation, blithely assuming no one will notice. We no longer make our own to-do list. E-mail does."

John Freeman, in his newly released book, The Tyranny of Email, says it's only going to get worse...and he's worried. He wrote his book in an attempt to slow things down for a moment so we can look at the enormous shift in space and time that e-mail has effected, how e-mail has changed our lives, our cultures and our workplaces, as well as our psychological well-being.

He's right when he says that at one time only doctors, plumbers and maybe volunteer firefighters were constantly on call. Not now. Now, if you're on e-mail, you're on call in a sense, 24/7. Think about it. Has anyone ever sent you an e-mail and when you didn't respond in an hour or so they sent you another e-mail asking you if you got the first e-mail?

How 'bout you? Have you done that? Yep, I thought so.

He equates our keyboards with a "messaging conveyor belt - with no break time." He uses the analogy of our connection to our cell phones, instant messaging, Facebook, text messages and all the other networking channels as "an ambulance trying to cross a busy intersection at rush hour."

Why is he worried about this phenomenon? Because the sheer volume is overwhelming and stressful. And because e-mail is so sterile. It's devoid of the richness of a face-to-face conversation and even that of a phone call. It's static. Disembodied. It has none of the hand gestures, verbal tones, inflections or facial expressions that we rely on to encode and decode the most important messages of our lives - with family, friends, and co-workers.

Three of his best suggestions?

  • Don't send any more e-mails than you really need to. Eighty percent of corporate e-mail problems, he says, are caused by 1 percent of workers. Don't be part of that 1 percent.
  • Don't check e-mail first thing in the morning or late at night. Take back your life. Check e-mail twice a day. Yes, you CAN do this!
  • Send good e-mails. Use subject lines. Then stop, if they convey your message. Keep e-mails short.

Put down that Blackberry for a moment. Think about it. What can you do to make e-mail a tool but not a tyrant?

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Great comments about how email can dominate our lives. I can certainly curtail my use and the tips offered are good ones. But people reading email while in the restroom? That's crazy. Although I've overhead cell phone conversations while in the restroom. That's crazy, too.

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