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Going Postal

As e-mail makes the rounds these days, we're all getting a lot more done. Or are we? The merry chatterers are torn about e-mail, the quick pick-me-up that's scarily addictive.

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I am sitting at my desk, looking for ways to avoid writing this piece. That's nothing new, and I know I am in good company. Writers have long looked for excuses not to write. It used to be that I spent the early part of each day lingering over the newspaper, or walking down two flights of stairs in my house to get a cup of tea or toast up a bagel. But eventually -- after 20 or 30 minutes, sometimes an hour -- I would settle down and put in two, three, or sometimes even four hours of solid work before lunch and then repeat the ritual in the afternoon. E-mail has changed all that. Suddenly, it seems to have invaded my life, an intermittent but relentless demand on my attention from early in the morning until shortly before sleep. What began as the mildest of diversions -- a couple of notes a day from friends in distant cities with whom I was happy to be more connected -- has grown into as many as two or three dozen exchanges, most of them focused on work. I now find myself logging on as many as ten times each day to see what new e-mail has arrived. In the evenings, after dinner, I walk up to my office yet again, knowing that my wife won't object because she, too, regularly checks her e-mail.

E-mail's intoxicating qualities are now well known: It's convenient, efficient, simple, and informal, a way to stay connected to more people, a democratizing force in the workplace and less intrusive than the telephone. But as e-mail proliferates, its more pernicious effects are increasingly evident. Much as it facilitates the conduct of business, e-mail is threatening to overrun people's lives. It's no longer uncommon for executives -- even those at middle levels -- to receive 100 to 150 e-mails a day -- a veritable torrent that floods "24-7," to use the macho shorthand of e-business. At a subtler level, e-mail celebrates transaction more than engagement, bite-size information rather than considered reflection, connection without commitment. In the name of better and speedier communication, e-mail can be rude, clipped, superficial, and depressingly desiccated. A boon when it comes to making lunch dates and answering yes-or-no questions, it is also an insistent source of distraction from more demanding work. E-mail has proved fiercely addictive -- cocaine for compulsive achievers.

Robert Iger, the chairman of ABC, is nothing if not disciplined. He awakens in the dark each day at 4:30 a.m. in order to read four newspapers. After that, he works out at the gym near his office on the Upper West Side, eats a small breakfast, and arrives at his desk by seven. For years, nothing interfered with this regimen. Then along came e-mail.

"It's just completely changed the rhythms of my workday," Iger admitted recently, sounding sheepish. "I try to avoid turning on the computer when I wake up now, because I know if I do, I won't read my newspapers. By the time I do log on, around 6 a.m., 25 messages have accumulated from Europe and California since I last checked before going to sleep. When I get to work and sit down at my desk, there's often some document in my in-box that I need to read. But meanwhile, the e-mails keep arriving. It really affects your attention span. All of a sudden, you find yourself turning around in your chair just to see what's there. Without thinking about it, you start answering them, and before long, 40 minutes has gone by. I now find myself purposely avoiding meetings just to handle the increasing volume of e-mail. I haven't been able to discipline myself yet to put off looking at them -- and I'm not sure if I ever will."

At least two factors feed e-mail's seductive power. One is the middle ground that it offers between the desire to be productive (or at least to feel productive) and the utterly human inclination to avoid challenging work. "We typically choose to do the thing that demands the least of us first," says Sherry Turkle, a sociologist affiliated with MIT's Science, Technology and Society program and author of Life on the Screen. "E-mail has been constructed so that you can do the business at hand easily and efficiently. You have the sense, sitting at your keyboard, of orchestrating a life. It feels satisfying and productive without much effort."

The other irresistible lure of e-mail is more primal. "It's the power of intermittent reinforcement," argues Lee Sproull, a professor of business at New York University who has spent the past fifteen years studying e-mail. "The computer is now the ultimate Skinner box. You keep coming back for the reward."


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