How E-mail Is Swallowing Our Lives

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caucasian business man computer computing isolated studio on white backgroundPhoto: FRANCK CAMHI/FRANCK CAMHI

One day several zillion years from now, when aliens from a faraway planet try to make sense of our long-defunct civilization, they’re going to be convinced that e-mail came before the telephone. How else to explain our reliance on something so time-consuming, enervating, and maddeningly inefficient when we could all dispense with our most basic tasks — and coordinate them, for that matter — with a brief phone call?

But that’s not how it happened, of course, and that’s not what we do. Last week, lawyers for Steve Cohen, the CEO of SAC Capital, which was indicted last week,* said their client had failed to notice insider trading within his company because he received 1,000 e-mails per day — and therefore missed a crucial warning missive alerting him that something shady was afoot. How plausible it is that he didn’t know about these shenanigans is highly debatable (okay, it's implausible), but in the abstract, the idea that Cohen couldn’t keep pace with the furious activity in his in-box doesn't feel like a stretch. Even those of us without a Hamptons estate and an estimated net worth of $9.3 billion regard our e-mail in the same way Mickey Mouse viewed that army of brooms and buckets in Fantasia’s "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice": an unstoppable force that will soon drown us.

And we’re not imagining it. According to a 2012 study from McKinsey Global Institute, the average worker in the knowledge economy spends 28 percent of his or her time reading and answering e-mail. Doing the math, that comes to 11.2 hours per week, if one assumes a 40-hour workweek. This figure is nothing compared to the time we feel like we’re spending on e-mail, either; Mimecast, an e-mail management company, surveyed roughly 2,500 of its clients that same year and asked them how much of their workday was devoted to contending with their e-mail, and the average answer was 50 percent. (“One thousand e-mails per day wouldn’t strike me as uncommon,” adds Barry Gill, Mimecast’s senior product marketing manager, when I asked him about Steve Cohen. “I’m middle management working for a relatively small start-up, and until recently, I got roughly 500 messages per day. Mainly from customers.”)

The conventional wisdom may be that our e-mail use is going down. And among younger people, that’s true, as instant messaging and communication through social networks replaces it. But not at the office. According to the Radicati Group, a technology market research firm, Americans received 75 business e-mails per day in 2012 — only a small fraction of which were spam, by the way — and sent 35. Those numbers are expected to increase, respectively, to 87 and 42 by 2016.

Yet only 42 percent of those messages are considered important, according to Dmitri Leonov, one of the founders of SaneBox, a service that helps filter e-mails. And if efficiency is what we care about, here’s an especially depressing finding from his company’s research: It takes 67 seconds to recover from each e-mail we receive.

E-mails, after all, are disruptive. It takes start-up energy to read them; it takes energy to reorient and reboot once we’re returned to the task we’ve left. Over the course of a week, the price can be measured in hours. If, as the Radicati group says, we receive 75 messages per day (and SaneBox’s is similar, putting the number at 70), we spend nearly an hour and a half each day simply clearing our heads from all the correspondence we receive. “At some point,” says Leonov, “we have to understand this process is hurting us.”

The spooky part is, this irrepressible need we feel to monitor our e-mail accounts may be harder to control than we think. Nancy Darling, an Oberlin psychologist, points out in a 2011 blog post that the ever-refreshing content in our in-boxes caters to our "orienting response," or human bias toward novelty (a survival instinct, no doubt — leopard over there!). In general, the human brain finds text irresistible: She mentions the Stroop effect, a psychology chestnut in which the word for one color is printed in another — for instance, the word red written in blue ink. If test-takers are asked to identify what color the word’s printed in, they hesitate. But they have no trouble identifying what the word says. Reading words onscreen is almost always easier and more alluring than a task requiring deeper analysis.

So we’re hooked. Last year, an online study by Harris Interactive found that 30 percent of us check our phones while we’re at dinner, and 54 percent of us look at them while lying in bed. (Nine percent even look at them during religious services, a fact I simply adore.) The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a story in 2010 by an academic who declared e-mail her “third shift” (a wink to Arlie Hochschild, the sociologist who famously dubbed the child-care portion of a working woman’s day “the second shift” in her groundbreaking 1989 work by the same name). Spelunking through academic databases, I’ve since seen doctoral theses of the same name, examining the same idea.

And Leonov is right: We should consider how this is affecting us. In fact, some researchers already have. In 2008, the consultant Linda Stone coined the term “email apnea” to describe our physiological response to reading e-mails (namely, shallow breathing or holding our breath), postulating we unconsciously enter fight-or-fight mode while doing it. Last year, Gloria Mark, a professor in UC Irvine’s department of informatics, showed that people who took “email vacations” were much likely to have variable heart rates than a sustained heart rate on high alert. (Guess which state is better for you.)

We seem to be paying an economic penalty for this extra work, as well as a physiological one. In 2012, the number of lawsuits filed against companies for forcing overtime work without pay was up 32 percent from 2008, according to USA Today, and much of the reason, the story concluded, was that workers were now forced to spend untold hours responding to e-mails. (A typical example, from a sergeant in the Chicago PD who filed a class-action lawsuit: “Allen … says he got a near-constant barrage of e-mails, text messages and calls on his department-issued BlackBerry until around 10 p.m. every weeknight. Each required a response lasting from a minute to an hour or two.”)

Indeed, the only person who seems not to be a hostage to his e-mail is Steve Cohen.

It perhaps stands to reason: Barry Gill, of Mimecast, says the real problem with e-mail overload isn’t for overlords like Cohen, but “someone who’s further down the management chain. Because they don’t have the resources or political and managerial clout to call for help.” In January, Bill Gates told the Today show that he only has to look at 40 to 50 messages per week.

But you’d be surprised. On Quora, the immensely popular community-based question-and-answer website, someone once posted the question, How do bigwigs like Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page handle their huge volumes of e-mail traffic? Here, by far, was the most intriguing response, from a fellow claiming to be a high-frequency trader, by the name of David Shin:

When I worked at Google in 2006/2007, Larry and Sergey held a Q&A session, and this exact question was asked of them. One of them answered (I don't remember which) … "When I open up my email, I start at the top and work my way down, and go as far as I feel like. Anything I don't get to will never be read. Some people end up amazed that they get an email response from a founder of Google in just 5 minutes. Others simply get what they expected (no reply)."

Maybe Cohen followed a similar practice.

* An earlier version of this article said Cohen had been indicted, not SAC Capital.