Commentary 21 Feb 2008 07:47 pm
The following is my print column, originally published on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2008, in The Alliance Review.
Could you go one day a week without e-mail?
Business owners and managers around the nation — and around the world — are telling employees to try, from technology-rich Silicon Valley to at least one NBA team. The movement is No E-mail Friday — a day to lay down the mouse, take fingers off keys, and talk to co-workers face to face instead of sending.
E-mail — a tool designed to save time and increase productivity — has done the opposite. According to talking heads on various cable news networks, approximately 170 billion e-mails are sent worldwide daily. The average office worker is interrupted, on average, once every two minutes by some kind of cyber-message.
This translates into billions of dollars in lost productivity, longer work hours, and a loss, on average, of 10 IQ points from the start to the finish of the day as the mind reels from repeated interruptions. (One assumes the IQ resets the next morning, or America’s office workers would look like the shuffling zombies in “Shaun of the Dead.”)
Last April, ABC News ran a story about U.S. Cellular Vice President Jay Ellison, who instituted a No E-mail Friday policy after receiving an average of 200 e-mails a day. The story said Ellison came down with a bad case of “cyber-indigestion,” prompting him to order compulsive e-mailers in his company to stand down on Friday, and then to stand up — as in leave their cubicles and go talk to somebody.
The results were comical. Employees learned that a fellow worker with a gender-neutral name was a woman; most had addressed her as “sir” in e-mails because they had never bothered to meet her. One worker discovered an associate whom he assumed worked in a different building was not only on the same floor, but also right across the hall.
I once knew a person who, every few months, gave up drinking for a week, just to prove he could. That he felt compelled to do this probably indicated he had a real problem with alcohol; the fix revealed what was broken.
No E-mail Fridays give me the same vibe, a bunch of technophiles forced to go Amish to see how the other half lives.
Still, the concept intrigues. Could I go every Friday without e-mail?
Confession time: I’m an inveterate e-mail addict, with home and work accounts. I check my e-mail multiple times a day, every day. Most of it is junk. I have a few acquaintances who forward every chain cyber-letter or cutesy inspirational story. Then there are the advertisements for Viagra, stock tips, and pleas from foreigners to hide money in my bank account. Delete, delete, delete.
Along with that come occasional important nuggets from students, parents, co-workers, and friends — stuff that warrants a response. Every so often, a reader will weigh in about something I’ve written here, either to say attaboy or go jump in the lake.
I leave my e-mail account open constantly at home, and I peruse it every few minutes while doing other tasks on the computer; I’ve looked at it twice since starting this column. It’s an obsessive-compulsive thing, like constant hand washing or checking repeatedly to make sure the lights are turned off.
When I told my wife I was jumping on the No E-mail Friday bandwagon, I added the caveat that I would still check my work account out of respect for co-workers. “What good is a No E-mail Friday where you check your e-mail?” she asked.
She’s right. I need to go all the way.
So for the next six months, I’m not checking e-mail on Friday. Not even peeking. If I need to communicate with somebody, I’ll pick up the phone, write a note, or physically track him or her down.
Georgette Huff, who writes in this space Mondays, has given up for one year buying anything made in China. Next to her, my experiment looks like chump change, I know. To quote a character in “The Miracle Worker” by William Gibson, “I’d sooner have a more heroic issue, myself.”
But we go where we are called, and I feel called to cast off Friday e-mails for half a year. I’ll update periodically, both here and on my blog, to let you know how I’m doing.
Meanwhile, feel free to communicate with me about this column by e-mail, but don’t expect a response until Saturday.
At 12:01 a.m.