Too wired to relax

`No downtime': Precious hours away from work seem to be sapped by time-saving technology.

January 29, 2004|By Mike Langberg | Mike Langberg,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

I'm writing this while on vacation in Lake Tahoe, watching fluffy wet snow pile up outside the window of a rented condominium, and I can't stop checking my e-mail.

This isn't the first vacation when I've made time for going through messages on my laptop computer. I've read company e-mail about employee fun days during a trip to Paris, responded to readers with questions or criticisms from Hawaii and sorted through the flow of news releases about tech products at my in-laws' apartment in New York.

Do I have a problem? Am I ruining precious free time?

I'm not sure. But I do know, without quoting statistics I could have looked up if I weren't on vacation, that I'm not alone.

Millions of people are now struggling to stay on top of ever-expanding e-mail inboxes.

I don't mean spam, a huge annoyance that saps small increments of time as we repeatedly hit the "Delete" key.

I'm talking about legitimate e-mail relating to work, friends, community and more. Dozens or even hundreds of messages every day that can't be skipped.

Phone calls can be ignored when you're away; callers assume you're not available if they get a recorded message. Instant messaging doesn't work when your computer is turned off.

E-mail, on the other hand, is a blind alley: Senders don't know when you'll see their messages. Yet, for reasons I don't claim to understand, senders seem to expect you to respond immediately.

Using the wireless high-speed Internet service available for $10 a day at the resort where I'm staying, I kept a tally this week of exactly how much e-mail I get. The average, after deleting the spam, is about 100 per weekday.

My technique on vacation is to delete unimportant messages and save others in a "hold for later" file to deal with when I get home. I'm averaging about 30 of these saved messages per day - or about 150 in a typical vacation week.

I don't want to confront an in-box bulging with 500 or more messages after a one-week vacation, so I give up 15 minutes of every vacation day to check e-mail.

On balance, I believe, this is more of a benefit than a burden.

E-mail helps me keep in touch with family and makes my work more efficient. I'd rather know in advance that an important interview I've arranged for an upcoming column has been cancelled, as I learned at Tahoe, than be surprised when I return to work.

Of course, I recognize not everyone who feels compelled to check e-mail every day is equally accepting of this modern ball and chain.

Two days before leaving for Tahoe, I had one of those only-in-Silicon-Valley moments at a holiday party in Palo Alto, Calif. I was talking with the husband of our hostess and telling him about my plan to write this column.

He turned out to be Joe Hustein, a lawyer with a background in computer science who has worked for a string of companies; his wife is Francine Toder, a psychologist who coaches executives. They have written an unpublished book called The Top Ten Computer Neuroses And What To Do About Them, with a section devoted to a problem they call "no downtime."

It's now time for me to help Sara, my 3-year-old daughter, make a snowman, so I'll let Hustein and Toder have the last word, from the first chapter of their manuscript:

"Technology has held out the promise of more time for us to use to think, to enjoy life, to experience nature, to engage in leisure. Supposedly we have more time because we can accomplish our tasks much faster. Much has been written elsewhere about the falsity of this premise, yet marketers continue to promote more `good' time as the incentive to purchase their products. Several companies feature magazine ads and television commercials showing men lolling stress-free on beaches with their wireless PCs contentedly working. Never shown are their angry wives longing for some precious intimate moments with their husbands away from the grasp of work.

"The cold cruel reality is that when work can be accomplished faster with technology, most of us will use the gained time to do ever more work. In a never-ending spiral of increased work, greater goals and a better bottom line, we take on more and more because we have the time to do more and more. When carpenters started using power saws, they didn't build the same number of houses as before and then use the time saved to go to the beach; they instead built more houses in the same time it took them before. More work, more tasks and more productivity means, for most of us, more pressure, more aggravation and more frustration."

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