Opinion: Are you an e-mail apniac?

I’d been chatting with a high-profile local technology figure late last week when the reality of instant communications hit us both as hard as a Viagra spam alert.

“So anyway,” I said, “when you reached me via e-mail earlier this week, I thought that -“

“Hold on a sec,” he said quickly. “Weren’t we talking on Twitter?”

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I paused for a moment, thinking. He could have been right. “Maybe it was Facebook,” I offered.

After racking our brains for a few seconds, it became clear our medium of choice had in fact been Twitter. But that’s beside the point, really.

What does seem to increasingly matter, however, is that information employees – a rough term I made up a few minutes ago to classify those who sit at computers all day and type things for money – are increasingly besieged by a growing maelstrom of instant communications, e-mail included.

And while the two of us agreed we weren’t yet at our communications breaking points, it was noted that a certain amount of “e-mail fatigue” was settling in.

Most companies don’t yet seem to think this is a problem, other than the obvious aspect of not wanting employees tweeting away their time with friends. And maybe they’re right.

But while in theory it might seem like no communication is bad communication, there’s a growing school of thought that seems to believe otherwise.

No one wants their employees blubbering like babies six seconds after they open their inboxes, and to that end enter the Information Overload Research Group. It’s a group of academics, vendors, corporate interests and consultants dedicated to reducing the information burden on besieged knowledge workers. It was formed in 2007.

And not a moment too soon, it seems – a 2008 study by AOL found that 46 per cent of respondents said they were “hooked” on e-mail and that one-quarter of users were so overwhelmed they were thinking of declaring “e-mail bankruptcy.”

A similar study released this month found that 27 per cent of respondents under 35 check Facebook at least 10 times per day. That sounds about right.

Indeed, IORG president Nathan Zeldes recently opined that “though people suffer they don’t fight back, because communication is supposed to be good for you.”

Perhaps the term “suffer” is a tad melodramatic, but you get the point. Communications experts are even now pointing to the growing existence of e-mail addiction – which in its clinical description is an overwhelming need to check your BlackBerry while you’re on the toilet. Or at a bar mitzvah. Or pretty much anywhere else, all the time.

One assumes that particular addiction could easily extend into the realm of social networking, where it’s theoretically possible to spend your entire life exchanging e-gifts with acquaintances, if one so chooses.

But that’s not the way to live a healthy, well-balanced life. Linda Stone, a well-known writer and consultant who coined the term “continuous partial attention” to describe the brain activity of most knowledge workers, says many employees enter a state of “e-mail apnea” when answering various electronic bombardments.

That’s “the unconscious suspension of regular and steady breathing when you tackle your mail,” by the way.

Sound familiar?

If it does, get help. And soon.

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