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Why We're (Still) So Dependent On Email Even Though We Hate It

A new survey from Pew Research shows we are more dependent on email and Internet to do our jobs than ever.

[Photo: Flickr user sasha diamanti]

Depending on the day (or the hour) email is either a blessing or a curse.

We're always trying to find smarter ways to deal with it, debunking myths about the "right" way to email, and debating if it's possible to ever reach the mythical inbox zero.

But could you do your job without it?

The answer for many of us is probably not. A new survey just released from the Pew Research Center bears this out. Six in ten (61%) of American workers claimed that email is "very important" to doing their job. This statistic beats use of the Internet, which just over half (54%) ranked as important, as well as the use of social media which only 4% of those surveyed said was a necessary tool for their jobs.

The report, part of Pew’s year-long series of reports tied to the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web, surveyed 1,066 adult Internet users, 535 of which are employed full-time or part-time in both white collar office jobs (which Pew reports includes more college educated women) as well as service workers and those in skilled trades (where the balance tips towards men).

Not surprisingly, those in more traditional "blue collar" jobs aren’t quite as quick to lean on email to earn their daily bread. The survey indicates that workers in offices are about three times more dependent (78%) on the digital tool than those who aren’t (25%).

These findings didn’t surprise researchers at Pew who’ve been studying email technology in the workplace for more than a decade. "Email is to the digital age what stone-sharpening tools were in the prehistoric age," said Lee Rainie, director of Internet, science, and technology research at the Pew Research Center, in a statement.

Back in 2002, Pew Research surveys indicated that 61% of U.S. employees were using email at work. That figure rose to 62% in 2008. "Email has proven its worth on the job as the foundational ‘social media’ day by day even as rival technologies arise," said Rainie.

Rainie contends that email "continues to rule workplaces despite threats like spam and phishing and competitors like social networking and texting." It certainly outstrips the phone. The same survey revealed that just one in three workers (35%) rely on their landline to do their work, and even fewer (24%) say the same about mobile phones.

When Email Isn't Just For Office Hours

Relying on email and Internet connections is becoming more necessary as work doesn’t always happen in the office—much less between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Pew Research found that only 41% of workers said they never toiled outside the auspices of their employer. This in contrast to the 21% who said they work remotely every day or almost every day, and another 13% who do so a few times a week.

No wonder 39% of respondents touted digital tools’ capability to allow them more flexibility about when they work in addition to how they get it done. The report cites nearly half (46%) of workers feel their overall productivity gets a boost from using email, Internet, and mobile phones.

Other research backs this up. Findings from shows that it’s helpful to be able to get away from the sound of our colleagues’ talking right near us and into the "white noise" of a humming coffee shop. Another productivity expert consistently pushes the benefits of recognizing and working within your unique cognitive thinking style.

Flexibility has a dark side, according to the survey. Thirty-five percent of respondents say they spend more time working because of the Internet and their mobile phones. Instead of being free to pursue activities that have nothing to do with work, the availability of email (and a hand held device to check it on) has become more of a drain on the 21st-century worker.

That said, we currently spend nearly half of our free time watching television, and in spite of the recent spate of research that says we are chronically sleep-deprived, we are catching Zs to the tune of an average of over eight hours a night. The problem of working more may actually lie within our own minds. According to research by sociologist and director of American's Use of Time Project John Robinson, we tend to overestimate the time we spend working by between 5% and 10%.

Which brings us full circle to productivity's conundrum: we are obsessed with working better and faster because it plays to our desire to show our worth and contribute to something greater and we are able to do this because of our dependence on digital tools. But when one of the only tricks proven to help individuals be more productive is to stop checking email, the findings of this Pew Research survey don't offer much comfort.

Email and Internet aren’t going away any time soon, and their importance may take longer than a century to wane (at least it did for the telephone). Until we rid ourselves of the dependence on email, and forget about achieving the mythical inbox zero, we’ve got some suggestions on how to make that task better, faster, and more fun.