“Communication breakdown,
It’s always the same,
I’m having a nervous breakdown,
Drive me insane!

– Led Zeppelin

We're all drowning

We're all drowning

A day or two after posting the piece on the Xobni e-mail plug-in, I happened to run across this story from The Los Angeles Times about the coming backlash against e-mail (or “e-fail” as one observer dubbed it).  Check out this passages and see if you don’t have a strong sense of déjà vu:

Timothy Ferriss, author of “The 4-Hour Workweek,” says that what’s wrong with e-mail is that it simulates forward motion but doesn’t necessarily mean action.

“E-mail is used as a self-validation tool by people to procrastinate and to re-create activity versus productivity,” he says. Ferriss, who says he used to receive “close to 300 e-mails per hour,” is now checking his personal account only twice a day.

“Less than half a day goes by and you’ll get an e-mail saying, ‘Why haven’t you responded to my e-mail?'” she says. “The expectation, because you’ve sent it, is the other person is looking at his screen all the time and his job is to look at his screen waiting for e-mails.”

It’s also one of the worst culprits in a growing global lack of focus, says Maggie Jackson, author of the recently published book “Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age.”  According to Jackson, information overload is not just making life at the dinner table less pleasant as Mom checks her BlackBerry, but it’s also undermining civilization itself.

“We’re so overloaded by information bites that we’re less and less able to go deeply, to create knowledge or wisdom out of all the information,” she says. “This is one reason why I say we’re on the cusp of a dark age.”

Elsewhere in the article, Basex, a New York-based research firm estimates that interruptions from e-mail eat up as many as 2.1 hours per worker per day.  Multiplied by the 56 million knowledge workers in the U.S., and the annual cost is $650 billion in lost productivity.

The answer?  Well, plug-ins like Xobni can help, but it really will come down to a decision by organizations and individuals to use this still relatively new communication channel more wisely.  For example, this month one of my clients is implementing program that will teach its 28,000 employees how to use e-mail more efficiently.  The guidelines are pretty much of a BGO when you think about ‘em:  don’t hit “Reply to All” unless everyone on the list really, really needs to see the message; don’t send unnecessary “thank you’s” that just clog up Inboxes; use e-mail rules to sort your incoming messages automatically; refrain from checking your Inbox every five minutes; don’t use e-mail when a phone call would do; and so on.

Problem is, most of us don’t think consciously about e-mail.  It’s become an addiction that, like coffee or cigarettes, will take some effort and commitment to break.

So let’s all do our part and learn how to trim e-mail usage.  Because it’s true:  if any of us want to get good e-mail, we really should know how to give good e-mail.  It’s only fair.