There are 174,400 e-mails in my inbox right now

E-mail was a great idea. But it's broken -- and destroying the productivity it was supposed to bring.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

There are exactly, at this very moment, 174,400 e-mails in my inbox. Slightly more than 55,000 are unread.

I read as much e-mail as I can -- from the writers who publish on this site to the internal teams I work with who keep this site ticking over to the many, many e-mails I get from public relations people alerting me to something new or novel. And let's not forget the occasional note from a SmartPlanet reader!

It's entirely overwhelming.

Relative to most other people in the business world, I'm an edge case: having a public face means I get more e-mail than your average corporate executive. But the point still stands: we get too much e-mail, it takes too much time to process and no matter how elaborate a filing system we create to filter things, it's overwhelming.

"E-mail is swallowing our lives," proclaims a recent New York magazine headline. Why? It's "time-consuming, enervating, and maddeningly inefficient." Well, yeah.

The New York story is actually about SAC Capital's Steve Cohen, whose hedge fund was indicted last week for insider trading. One argument Cohen's legal representation offered in the fund founder's defense is that he couldn't reasonably be held accountable for having been informed about the insider trading -- not with some 1,000 e-mails assaulting him every day. A novel excuse, but it resonates.

The post by Jennifer Senior throws out some scary figures to back it up: 28 percent of a knowledge worker's time, on average, is spent answering e-mail, according to McKinsey research. That figure can easily exceed 50 percent. Yet less than half of all e-mail is in any way important.

Most frighteningly, it takes us 67 seconds per e-mail for our attention to "recover" from the disruption. It's now 8:47 a.m. New York time, and I already have 60 e-mails to read. By that math, I've already lost an hour of my workday, and it technically hasn't begun yet.

Is e-mail helping or hurting our economy? It depends on how guilty we feel trying to reply to the nonstop barrage. (In the 12 minutes I took to write this, I received another six e-mails.) If today's situation is any indication, it's already the norm to blow past half your inbox with nary a glance -- and expected that you might need to e-mail multiple times just to get a response. Which, conceptually, seems to only add insult to injury.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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