These e-mails have nothing in common — except for the fact that none of their issues had been on my agenda that morning. I don’t even know one of the senders. But although it took only a few minutes to read these notes, I suddenly feel pressure to develop coherent thoughts on complex questions regarding someone else’s business enterprise, office politics and world peace.
It’s barely 8 a.m., and I’m already drowning in e-mail. In the blink of an eye, my day’s priorities have been commandeered. And more missives keep pouring in, including tweets, Google Plus notifications, Facebook status updates and instant messages. It’s essentially a fire hose of information all day long.
In the not-too-distant past, when you wanted to set up a meeting, ask for help and advice, or simply share something of interest, you had a few choices. You could pick up the phone, send a letter or meet face to face. Each involved a certain amount of effort, tact and planning. Unless you were extremely close friends — or in extreme crisis — you’d have been unlikely to barge into someone’s house or office and expect, then and there, 20 minutes of thoughtful, focused attention.
But today, communication is friction-free. You can send a message from anywhere in the world, at any time of the day, and somehow feel concerned, miffed even, if you don’t get a reply within a few hours.
I love the power of instant communication to connect us across continents. Barring spammers, most e-mailers mean well. We get excited about spreading the ideas that energized us that morning. We feel sure that the recipient will appreciate being asked for his or her opinion — after all, who doesn’t like to have someone pay attention to their thoughts? And of course, sometimes we’re just trying to do our jobs.
But the unintended consequence is that communication volume is expanding to the point where it threatens to take over our lives. An e-mail inbox has been described as a to-do list that anyone in the world can add to. If you’re not careful, it can gobble up most of your week. Then you’ve become a reactive robot responding to other people’s requests, instead of a proactive agent addressing your own priorities.
Why is e-mail volume getting ever worse? I believe it’s because of a simple fact: E-mail is easier to create than to respond to. This seems counterintuitive — after all, it’s quicker to read than to write. But reading a message is just the start. It may contain a hard-to-answer question, such as “What are your thoughts on this?” Or a link to a Web page. Or an attachment. And it may be copied to a dozen other people, all of whom will soon chime in with their own comments. Every hour spent writing and sending messages consumes more than an hour of the combined attention of the various recipients. And so, without meaning to, we’re all creating a growing problem for one another.