I used to think I could quit checking my e-mail any time I wanted to, but I stopped kidding myself years ago. My e-mail program is up and running 24 hours a day, and once I submit to its siren call, whole hours can go missing. I have a friend who recently found herself stuck on a cruise ship near Panama that didn't offer e-mail, so she chartered a helicopter to take her to the nearest Internet cafe. There was nothing in her queue but junk mail and other spam, but she thought the trip was worth it.
I know how she felt. You never know when you're going to get that note from Uncle Eric about your inheritance. Or that White House dinner invitation with a time-sensitive R.S.V.P.
My friend and I are not alone. According to a Gartner Group study, 42% of American e-mail users--and there are more than 100 million of us--check e-mail on vacation. Nearly 1 in 4 look for messages every weekend.
Dr. David Greenfield, founder of the Center for Internet Studies in West Hartford, Conn., believes that at least 6% of us are what he would classify as compulsive e-mail checkers. "It sounds silly, but people report withdrawal symptoms when they're away from it," he says. "It's very likely the brain gets the same kind of hit from e-mail as it does from gambling."
If e-mail is really as addictive as gambling, there must be a 12-step program somewhere to treat it. Sure enough, a Web search turns up an e-mail recovery program created back in 1997 by a pair of Florida State University administrators, Perry Crowell and Larry Conrad. It's pretty crude, Crowell admits, and because it was written before the explosion in users, traffic and e-mail viruses, it seems almost naive. "If we were to update it today, we might very well declare defeat," says Crowell.
Unwilling to give up all hope, we consulted a few experts and pieced together our own 12-step program for breaking the e-mail habit (or at least getting it under control). It goes like this:
STEP 1: ADMIT YOU HAVE A PROBLEM. Mark Ellwood, author of Cut the Glut of E-Mail, calculates that white-collar workers waste an average of three hours a week just on sorting through junk mail. If you spend any more than that, you had better read on.
STEP 2: RECOGNIZE THE SYMPTOMS. Dry eyes, back aches, wrist cramping and numb fingers are signs that you are spending too much time at the keyboard.
STEP 3: TAKE RESPONSIBILITY. If you didn't send so much e-mail, maybe you wouldn't get so much.
STEP 4: PRACTICE THE RULE OF THREE. If an e-mail thread has gone back and forth three times, it is time to pick up the phone.
STEP 5: DON'T COPY THE WORLD. Think twice about the people you put on your cc: list. If they all respond, then where will you be?
STEP 6: TURN OFF THE CHIME. Nothing triggers a Pavlovian response faster than a ringing bell, but a flashing icon in the task bar comes close. Turn both off and your urge to check will diminish over time.
STEP 7: SLOW DOWN. Answering messages the moment you get them creates an expectation that you will always respond as quickly. Let it be known that you won't. Train people to call if it's really urgent.
STEP 8: TOUCH EACH MESSAGE ONLY ONCE. If it isn't relevant, hit the delete key. If it is, set it aside, and plan to spend some time at the end of the day to reply.