An executive coach in Pennsylvania has devised a plan to teach people how to manage the electronic tool, which some users say can be as much an intrusive waste of time as it is fast-paced and efficient.
Developed for cases such as a golfer who checked his BlackBerry after every shot, and lost a potential client who wanted nothing to do with his obsession, Marsha Egan's plan taps into deepening concern that e-mail misuse can cost businesses millions of dollars in lost productivity.
"There is a crisis in corporate America, but a lot of CEOs don't know it," Egan said. "They haven't figured out how expensive it is."
One of Egan's clients cannot walk by a computer -- her own or anyone else's -- without checking for messages. Other people will not vacation anywhere they cannot connect to their e-mail systems. Some wait for e-mail and send themselves a message if one hasn't shown up in several minutes, Egan said.
The first of Egan's 12 steps is "admit that e-mail is managing you. Let go of your need to check e-mail every 10 minutes."
Other steps include "commit to keeping your inbox empty," "establish regular times to review your e-mail" and "deal immediately with any e-mail that can be handled in two minutes or less but create a file for mails that will take longer."
Egan says she hosts no 12-step meetings but is planning a monthly teleconference for "e-mailers anonymous."
Michelle Grace, an insurance agent in Lehighton, Pennsylvania, said she receives up to 60 messages a day and uses Egan's program to make it less time-consuming and less stressful.
"E-mail had me by the throat," she said. "When you can't find what you need, then it becomes a problem."
Now that her e-mail is transferred -- some manually and some automatically -- into files, Grace said she spends less time hunting for them.
On average, workers who receive an e-mail take four minutes to read it and recover from the interruption before they can resume working productively, Egan said.
She also recommends checking e-mail not more than three or four times a day.
Some employees resist the lure of e-mail during the regular workday, only to find themselves putting in extra hours at home to clear the backlog, she said. One of Egan's clients said he had 3,600 messages in his inbox.
Part of the problem is senders who copy messages too widely and are too vague in their subject lines, so recipients don't know what they need to open right away, Egan said.
For Grace, relief from her e-mail addiction means she is not checking her computer every five minutes.
She said she has let her colleagues know that if they need to reach her immediately, e-mail is not the way to do it.
"I told them, 'If you need me urgently, pick up the phone,'" she said.
Following are the 12 steps of a plan devised by executive coach Marsha Egan in Pennsylvania to teach people how to manage their e-mail:
- Admit that e-mail is managing you. Let go of your need to check e-mail every ten minutes.
- Commit to keeping your inbox empty.
- Create files where you can put inbox material that needs to be acted on.
- Make broad headings for your filing system so that you have to spend less time looking for filed material.
- Deal immediately with any e-mail that can be handled in two minutes or less but create a file for mails that will take longer.
- Set a target date to empty your in box. Don't spend more than an hour at a time doing it.
- Turn off automatic send/receive.
- Establish regular times to review your e-mail.
- Involve others in conquering your addiction.
- Reduce the amount of e-mail you receive.
- Save time by using only one subject per e-mail; delete extra comments from forwarded e-mail, and make the subject line detailed.
- Celebrate taking a new approach to e-mail.