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How to kill e-mail (before it kills you)

E-mail has become a pandemic disease. Here's the cure.

April 11, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - The average executive spends two hours a day on e-mail. That adds up to roughly one day per week.

We probably waste a lot of time every day on phone calls and meetings, too. The difference is that the demands on your time don't grow automatically as they do with e-mail.

E-mail has become a pandemic social disease. The more you get, the more you send. And the more you send, the more you get.

And I'm not just talking about e-mail viruses. The longer you use it, the more of it comes at you. The quantity of e-mail you get grows and never stops growing.

In the 1990s, e-mail was all good. At first, you had to be on the same office system or consumer service to exchange e-mail. But then the Internet made it possible to send messages from AOL to CompuServe, and from CompuServe to MCI. E-mail was wonderful. You could search it. You could send attachments and links.

Slowly, gradually, e-mail became something else. Every communications medium has its own costs and benefits. But with e-mail, the costs grow over time as the benefits shrink.

What's wrong with e-mail? In a nutshell, the medium is perfectly designed for information overload. Both message size and quantity are essentially unlimited. Unfortunately, electronic communication is like a gas: It expands to fill its container.

It's way too easy to copy everyone and "Reply All." It's also easy for companies to automate the sending of e-mail. There are almost no barriers to an unlimited number of people sending you an unlimited quantity of random stuff. But your time and attention are truly limited.

Because e-mails tend to be so many and so long, it's not friendly for reading on a cell phone. So, as we become more mobile, e-mail becomes less compatible with how we live and work.

E-mail has always suffered from another flaw: It facilitates miscommunication. When you're typing out words, you're thinking one thing, but the receiver can perceive your intent as something else. You're being funny. They perceive hostile. The reason is that humans are designed to communicate with words, facial expressions, body language and hand gestures all together. When you send only cold, black-and-white words, the other person can easily read into your message inaccurate intent or emotional content.

The experience of using e-mail has become like walking through a bad, big-city neighborhood at night. This person wants to rip you off; that person wants to offer you drugs or some shady sexual service; yet another is trying to infect you with a virus. You're literally dealing with organized crime syndicates every single day. Who needs that?

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