Last week, My Beautiful Wife told me that one of her young coworkers asked her a question about what life in business was like before e-mail. “I just can’t imagine it,” the youngster said. “How did you get anything done?”

You’d be surprised.

I don’t know about you, but I get upwards of 100 e-mails a day–sometimes 200 or more. It’s incredibly difficult to keep up with that volume of correspondence. Doing so adequately takes at least a couple of hours a day. I respond, sort, file, delete–and still, the e-mail keeps coming. In fact, it’s not uncommon for me to decide it’s time for me to take an hour to deal with e-mail, only to spend the whole hour time dealing just with the e-mail that comes in or bounces back and forth over the time I’m dealing with it. Three steps forward, two steps back. Sometimes, four steps back.

To say nothing of the stress and distraction of incoming e-mail, all day long. Let’s say you’re trying to work on a–ding!–and there’s an e-mail and, of course, you have to look at it. And just when you–ding! And even when it’s not dinging, you’re nervous about missing something. So you check it every couple of minutes. All day long.┬áIt’s a terrible habit, and it can suck both the productivity and the thoughtfulness out of everything you do.

How did we get anything done before e-mail? Hmmm.

Often when we needed to talk about something, we used the telephone. Strangely enough, phone calls sometimes got problems resolved inside a couple of minutes–less time than it takes to compose a coherent e-mail, and wait for a response, and bounce back and forth a couple of times. Even if you had to leave a message, you could state your case pretty clearly, without ambiguity or concern about whether the recipient was going to misinterpret you. (No need for emoticons in a phone message. ;))

Know what else we did? We spent less time reacting and more time thinking. Since there was no e-mail, documents had to be delivered via overnight package or local courier. You didn’t have to deliver everything right now–so you could think a little bit. Take an extra hour, or an extra day. You could do one thing at a time.

And, crazily enough, when you spent more time with a given bit of work, it was usually done more carefully and didn’t have to be redone as often. You felt better about it. You had good reasons for doing it, and you could articulate them.

Hey, times change, and I’m not curmudgeonly enough (yet) to tell you that e-mail is what’s wrong with the world and “back in my day, we really knew how to get things done.” But I will make two quick suggestions:

  1. Turn off the sound on your computer while you’re working. If you’re constantly being distracted by e-mail and instant messages, you’re not nearly as productive as you could be if you were concentrating on the task at hand. It’s hardly even a matter for reasonable debate. Imagine that, instead of sitting at your desk, you were trying to build a bookshelf–and the whole time you were building, someone was poking you in the arm every minute or so. Do you think you’d be frustrated? E-mail and instant messages aren’t much different, and may be worse.
  2. Make time in your day to deal with e-mail and nothing else. Maybe first thing in the morning, last thing in the evening, and once in the middle of the day. Doing so means you should be able to respond to most messages within a few business hours. If someone needs something faster–well, we do still have telephones, and they’re good for more than taking pictures.

Think this doesn’t apply to you? Try this: keep a count of how many times you check your e-mail today. I bet you’ll be shocked at how often you look.

Let us know how it goes. But–leave us a comment. Frankly, we’re trying to get stuff done, and we don’t need any more e-mail.