email isn't the enemy

Do you spend hours a day reading and responding to emails?

Lots of people do, apparently. Lifehacker pointed to a research project by Mark Eisenstadt posted back in February in the Get Real section at Corante. I'm not sure why Lifehacker waited until now to post the story, but since they did, and since this blog didn't exist when the Eisenstadt article was written I guess now's as good a time as any for me to chime in.

Don't go over to Corante expecting to read the whole article. It's there alright, but if a tenth of the email Eisenstadt receives or a tenth of the responses he writes are as long-winded and convoluted as his article, it's no wonder he's distracted.

Eisenstadt's conclusion is... well, I'm not exactly sure what it is; perhaps that email is bad. And we should say "no" to it, as one of his colleagues advises and as Donald Knuth has actually done.

He does us one favor at least in pointing to this article in the NYT (published one day previous to his), which says...

"Dr. Csikszentmihalyi...believes interruptions have their place. "I shouldn't knock distraction completely, because it can be useful," he said. "It can clear the mind and give you a needed break from a very linear kind of thinking."

He continued, "E-mail could be a kind of intermittent relief from having to think about things that are not really that enjoyable, but when it becomes a habit so you can't do without it, then it becomes the tail that wags the dog, and it's a problem."

[ed.-The article is much more interesting than Eisenstadt's project, especially for its discussion of congnitive flow.]

When it comes to distraction, email isn't the enemy, we are. As is the case with real and virtual world viruses (virii?), a lot depends on human behavior. I am as distracted as I chose to be.

We have lots of tools at our disposal to help us choose distraction and this has been the case for a long, long time. The situation will continue for a long time too, even if we all chuck our email accounts (I've got a large oil painting of that happening).

I should note that Boyd Stowe and Donald Knuth, noted by Eisenstadt for dumping email, actually did no such thing. Stowe urges migration to IM, and Knuth simply has his secretary filter his email for him. I find IM nauseatingly distracting and don't use it for that reason. I don't have the luxury of a secretary so I can't comment on the effectiveness of Knuth's method.

Instead, I have a few simple rules for email distraction-avoidance:

1. Don't give your email address to everybody and their brother.
2. Terminate with extreme prejudice (especially anything with "FWD: this is so cute" or words to that effect in the subject line).
3. By all means, don't save every email like Eisenstadt did as this will only tempt you to write a big, rambling research paper.

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