Web Informant #298, 24 August 2002:

Dealing with Email Separation Anxiety




I am writing this column while taking a short vacation at a friend's house outside of Palm Springs, California. The last time I visited here, my friend had nothing beyond dial-up to offer his guests -- now we've got a broadband cable modem and a wireless LAN, so we can surf poolside. That is the new American Dream -- to be on vacation, (especially the part about the pool) and still connected to your broadband fix. Heaven forbid that we forgo our daily dose of electronic messages, being out of touch with our correspondents around the planet and not getting up to the minute information about who-knows-what. It is all kind of sad.


I am visiting here with my teenaged daughter and her friend. To set their expectations, I told them before we set out on this journey not to pin their hopes on the always-connected lifestyle that both of them have come to expect when they are at home. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that all I needed was to pop in a wireless PC card in my laptop and I was off to the races. And she was hard at the computer once I finished this column and told her the good news.


Lest you think I exaggerate about this connected lifestyle, my daughter asked me when we were on the flight out here if she could IM (instant message) her friends from the plane. I told her that while this was certainly possible, at $3 or so a minute for the connect charges I wouldn't recommend it, unless she wanted to foot the eventual bill. She took it all in good nature though, and ended up watching a DVD on my laptop. What ever happened to reading a book? But I digress.


We adults are no different -- instead of IM, our technology addiction is squarely email. And when we aren't within email range, many of us start to twitch, just like an addict without their fix. I asked several people at our Breakaway Xchange conference in San Diego this week what do they do with emails when they are vacation. The depressing consensus was that even then, most still regularly check email. Many had developed interesting habits to try to avoid exposing their fellow family members to this nasty habit: doing it late at night or in the early morning hours when the rest of the brood is fast asleep. Or staying back while the family does some fun activity so the emails can flow uninterrupted. This is a Good Thing?


The problem is the daily email load that we have come to operate under: it doesn't really matter how many messages a day you get. If you are away for a week or two, you can't relax thinking about how many messages are piling up in your inbox, waiting for your perusal when you return. Your correspondents have come to expect a certain response time when they send you emails. As a result, the vacation without email is now a rarity.


I am no different I should hasten to add. Look at me: here I am composing this column on the weekend myself. I try not to check my work email address over the weekends now, but sometimes I just can't help myself. I guess I suffer from Email Separation Anxiety too. Hi, my name is David and I get about 150 messages a day, and I usually check my emails in the early morning, And I am ashamed.


Email Separation Anxiety is somewhat of a different concept from what I have seen called Bandwidth Separation Anxiety. This term is used to describe logged-on executives who cannot be more than five minutes away from a telephone, pager or Internet connection. This can even be a desirable quality to have in such individuals who are not usually known as a group for their typing skills, let alone the ability to retrieve messages from all over the planet.


Michael Dell has spoken about this often. "I suffer from bandwidth separation anxiety. It's a syndrome that occurs when you're not near a high-speed connection. It happens to me. You kinda get the shakes. It's the way we communicate, the only way we know how to get things done. We're connected all the time through wireless, voice recognition, handhelds."


You can spot people who are suffering from ESA quite easily. At the airport, they are the ones sitting near the AC power outlets, the better to stretch their batteries on their laptops. They are the ones at Starbucks that order a cheap cup of regular coffee so they can sit at the table and grab that wireless bandwidth. On the airplanes, they have their BlackBerries out and powered up before the wheels have hit the tarmac, and some surreptitiously check their messages in flight too. They are known to utter the phrase "Honey, I will just be a minute after I finish this one last message." They carry not only their own Ethernet cable, but a spare hub in case that is needed too, and have a backup AOL account just in case they have to go to the mattresses and use dial-up as a last resort.


So what is the cure? Unfortunately, neither medical nor computing science has found any known cure for this affliction. I used to travel without a laptop, and that seemed to work for a while until Internet cafes sprouted up faster than inflated dot com stock prices, and before long I could find my email fix no matter how remote or foreign a country. It does take strength of will, determination, and the ability to just relax and enjoy oneself on vacation. Maybe those should be the qualities that executive recruiters should look for for the next crop of CEOs. (That and just raw honesty might be good, but we'll leave that for another day.)


So just like Catholics have some meatless Fridays, I suggest taking a day (or what the heck, live dangerously and try two or three) away from email. Enjoy your families, friends, and the new vistas that Mother Nature provides outside of the view of your graphical desktop. And when you return, send me a note telling me your own strategy for coping, so we can all share the pain.


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David Strom
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