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E-mail draws us in because of the potential need for action.

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If information overload were a reality, you would walk into a library and die, productivity expert David Allen suggests puckishly in an interview with The Atlantic's James Fallows. In a similar vein, Mr. Allen notes that J.S. Bach had 20 children and still managed to produce great music, so perhaps we need to be careful these days about complaining we're too busy with the kids.

He also notes that the most information-laden place is also the most relaxing – nature. "The thing about nature is, it's information rich, but the meaningful things in nature are relatively few – berries, bears and snakes, thunderstorms, maybe poison oak. There are only a few things in nature that force me to change behaviour or make a decision. The problem with e-mail is that it's not just information; it's the need for potential action. It's the berries and snakes and bears, but they're embedded, and you don't know what's in each one," Mr. Allen notes.

When an e-mail arrives from the boss or a colleague, it may contain snakes or berries, but that isn't evident until you investigate. Over the day, we grow weary worrying about what the various e-mails might portend, leading to a growing sense of anxiety that something out there is more important than what we're currently doing. At home, we worry about work and at work we worry about home, undermining our productivity by the uncertainty about the snakes or bears we might be missing.

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About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More


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