Is the time we save costing us too much?

From David Pogue of The New York Times:

You already know that individuals and businesses worldwide are struggling to fix e-mail. The spam, the viruses, the irrelevant forwarding, the insipid joke mailing lists . . . whatever productivity gains e-mail once offered are rapidly being offset by the time we spend weeding through the chaff.

So far, though, nobody has gone as far as suggesting that we’re better off without e-mail entirely. Until now. John Caudwell is the millionaire head of Phones 4U, a chain of high-end cellphone stores in the U.K. Last week, in a move that’s causing shockwaves among, well, just about everybody, he banned all internal e-mail among his 2,500 employees. (They’re still allowed to correspond with customers, suppliers, their repair division and so on.) Mr. Caudwell says he wants his company to conduct their transactions by phone or face to face.

“Management and staff at HQ and in the stores were beginning to show signs of being constrained by e-mail proliferation,” Mr. Caudwell told reporters. “The ban brought an instant, dramatic and positive effect.”

How instant and how dramatic? He says that he’ll save three hours per day per employee, and over $1.6 million per month. That’s a huge productivity boost by any company’s standards.

Still, my first reaction was that Mr. Caudwell is, well, not the sharpest knife in the drawer. E-mail does sap away time, but it also saves massive amounts of time. You can conduct an e-mail transaction in a fraction of the time you’d need for a phone call — meanwhile, you get a permanent record of the exchange, one that you can search, sort and share with people who weren’t present.

But then I began to wonder. Have we reached the tipping point, where the time we save and the time we waste are canceling each other out?

I couldn’t help but fantasize about what I’d do with two free hours a day (that’s about how much time I spend on e-mail, and I’m still thousands of responses behind). I could spend more time with my kids, do a better job of staying fit, get more sleep . . . I could be a better man! I could lead a better, longer life!

But that’s only the beginning. E-mail is a real productivity sapper, sure, but what about the telephone? Talk about time-wasters! It takes you ten times as long to say the same thing, plus you’re spending it with only one person. What an incredible time drain!

Ban phone calls too, I say. Mr. Caudwell would save another three hours a day per employee.

And don’t forget about computers. Good heavens, in the time we spend learning them, debugging them, backing them up, maintaining them, installing new patches and drivers, we’re losing billions of person-hours a year. Get rid of them, too! There’s another three hours a day saved.

And while we’re at it, get rid of the TV’s. Let’s take back the billions and billions of hours we lose to television. And cars — who wouldn’t rather reclaim the time we spend hunting for parking and sitting in traffic?

And fax machines, and PalmPilots, and the Internet!

Just kidding.

Listen, if you really want to save time and productivity, ban meetings. Now you’re onto something.