May 19, 2024

Disruptions: Life’s Too Short for So Much E-Mail

Royal Pingdom, which monitors Internet usage, said that in 2010, 107 trillion e-mails were sent. Corporate employees sent and received 105 e-mails a day.Tony Cenicola/The New York TimesRoyal Pingdom, which monitors Internet usage, said that in 2010, 107 trillion e-mails were sent. Corporate employees sent and received 105 e-mails a day.

Just thinking about my e-mail in-box makes me sad.

This month alone, I received over 6,000 e-mails. That doesn’t include spam, notifications or daily deals, either. With all those messages, I have no desire to respond to even a fraction of them. I can just picture my tombstone: Here lies Nick Bilton, who responded to thousands of e-mails a month. May he rest in peace.

It’s not that I’m so popular.

Last year, Royal Pingdom, which monitors Internet usage, said that in 2010, 107 trillion e-mails were sent. A report this year from the Radicati Group, a market research firm, found that in 2011, there were 3.1 billion active e-mail accounts in the world. The report noted that, on average, corporate employees sent and received 105 e-mails a day.

Sure, some of those e-mails are important. But 105 a day?

All of this has led me to believe that something is terribly wrong with e-mail. What’s more, I don’t believe it can be fixed.

I’ve tried everything. Priority mail, filters, more filters, filters within filters, away messages, third-party e-mail tools. None of these supposed solutions work.

Last year, I decided to try to reach In-box Zero, the Zen-like state of a consistently empty in-box. I spent countless hours one evening replying to neglected messages. I woke up the next morning to find that most of my replies had received replies, and so, once again, my in-box was brimming. It all felt like one big practical joke.

Meanwhile, all of this e-mail could be increasing our stress.

A research report issued this year by the University of California, Irvine, found that people who did not look at e-mail regularly at work were less stressed and more productive than others.

Gloria Mark, an informatics professor who studies the effects of e-mail and multitasking in the workplace and is a co-author of the study, said, “One person in our e-mail study told us after: I let the sound of the bell and pop-ups rule my life.”

Ms. Mark says one of the main problems with e-mail is that there isn’t an off switch.

“E-mail is an asynchronous technology, so you don’t need to be on it to receive a message,” she said. “Synchronous technologies, like instant messenger, depend on people being present.”Although some people allow their instant messenger services to save offline messages, most cannot receive messages if they are not logged on. With e-mail, it is different. If you go away, e-mails pile up waiting for your return.

Avoiding new messages is as impossible as trying to play a game of hide-and-seek in an empty New York City studio apartment. There is nowhere to hide.

I recently sent an e-mail to a teenage cousin who responded with a text message. I responded again through e-mail, and this time she answered with Facebook Messenger. She was obviously seeing the e-mails but kept choosing a more concise way to reply. Our conversation moved to Twitter’s direct messages, where it was ended quickly by the 140-character limit.

Later, we talked about the exchanges, and she explained that she saw e-mail as something for “old people.” It’s too slow for her, and the messages too long. Sometimes, she said, as with a Facebook status update, you don’t even need to respond at all.

Since technology hasn’t solved the problem it has created with e-mail, it looks as if some younger people might come up with their own answer — not to use e-mail at all.

So I’m taking a cue from them.

I’ll look at my e-mail as it comes in. Maybe I’ll respond with a text, Google Chat, Twitter or Facebook message. But chances are, as with many messages sent via Facebook or Twitter, I won’t need to respond at all.

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