Email is Killing Us

Everyday I wade through an ever increasing number of emails. It has reached the point where I can only quickly scan my accounts looking for relevant communications.

TED curator Chris Anderson took up this very same problem on his blog noting that management of email messages can consume the better part of a work week. Below is Chris’s post and his call to action.

Houston, we have a problem.

We all love the power of email connecting people across continents. But… we’re drowning in it.

Every year it gets a little worse. To the point where we can get trapped spending most of our working week simply handling the contents of our in-boxes.

And in doing so, we’re making the problem worse. Every reply, every cc, creates new work for our friends and colleagues.

We need to figure out a better way.

But how?

Here is the key cause of this problem:

The total time taken to respond to an email is often MORE than the time it took to create it.

Because even though it’s quicker to read than to write, five other factors outweigh this:
– Emails often contain challenging, open-ended questions that can’t rapidly be responded to
– It’s really easy to copy and paste extra text into emails. (Email creation time is almost the same. Reading time soars.)
– It’s really easy to add links to other pages, or video (each capable of consuming copious gobbets of time)
– It’s really easy to cc multiple people
– The act of processing an email consists of more than just reading. There is a) scanning an in-box, b) deciding which ones to open, c) opening them, d) reading them e) deciding how to respond f) responding g) getting back into the flow of your other work.
So the arrival of even a two-sentence email that is simply opened, read and deleted can take a minimum of 30-60 seconds out of your available cognitive time.
This means that every hour someone spends writing and sending email, may well be extracting more than an hour of the world’s available attention — and generating a further hour or more of new email. That is not good.

It is in fact a potent ‘tragedy of the commons’. The commons in question here is the world’s pool of attention. Email makes it just a little too easy to grab a piece of that attention. The unintended consequence of all those little acts of grabbing is a giant rats nest of voracious demands on our time, energy and sanity.

To fix a ‘commons’ problem, a community needs to come together and agree new rules. That’s why it’s time for an Email Charter. One that can reverse the escalating spiral of obligation and stress.

I have reserved the url for the finished product. [Update, June 29. The Charter is live!] But first let’s figure out what the charter should be. Let’s do this as a crowd. It’s a shared problem. Let’s come up with a shared solution. It will only work if lots of people agree to it.

The Charter must focus on reversing the underlying cause. We need a world where it is much quicker to process email than to create it. Bearing that in mind. Here are some candidate rules for an Email Charter. (And btw, much of this applies equally to other online messaging, such as Facebook.)

1. Respect Recipients’ Time
This is the fundamental rule. As the message sender, the onus is on YOU to minimize the time your email gobbles at the other end — even if it means taking more time at your end before sending.

2. Be Easy to Process
This means: crisp sentences, unambiguous questions, keep it short. If the email absolutely has to be longer than 100 words, make sure the first sentence is clear about the basic reason for writing.

3. Choose Clear Subject Lines.
Here are some that don’t work:
Subject: Re: re: re: re
Subject: Hello from me!
Subject: next week….
Subject: MY AMAZING NEW SHOW starts next week at the Vctory Theater at 113-86 Broad Lane, every night 8 PM 6/7–7/12
Here are some that do:
Subject: TED Partnership Proposal
Subject: Rescheduling today’s dinner with Sarah G.
Subject: Noon meeting cancelled (eom).
EOM means ‘end of message.’ It’s a fine gift to your recipient. They don’t have to spend the time actually opening the message.

4. Short Does Not Mean Rude!
Let’s mutually agree that it’s OK for emails — and replies — to be really short. They don’t have to include the usual social niceties, though the occasional emoticon is no bad thing đŸ˜‰ . No one wants to come over as brusque, so don’t take it that way. We just want our lives back!

5. Slow Does Not Mean Uncaring!
Let’s also agree that it’s OK if someone doesn’t respond quickly, or ever. I’s not that they don’t love you. They may just not want to be owned by their in-box. Avoid sending chasing emails, unless you’re desperate. It’s only exacerbating the problem.

6. Abhor Open-Ended Questions
It’s really mean to send someone an email with four long paragraphs of turgid text followed by “Thoughts?”. It’s generous to figure out how you can offer people simple yes/no questions – or multiple choice! “When you have a moment could you let me know if you’re A) firmly in favor, B) mildly in favor C) against or D) no opinion. Thanks!”

7. Cut Gratuitous Responses
You don’t need to reply to every email. If I say “Thanks for your note. I’m in.” You don’t have to reply “Great.” That just cost me another 30 seconds. If you must confirm, put it in the subject line with an ‘eom’.

8. Think Before you cc:
Cc:’s are like mating bunnies. Like Tribbles from Star Trek. Like spilling a tub of olive oil-coated spaghetti on a well-waxed floor. Like too many metaphors. Most of them are unneccessary, and they are hard to get rid of. The rule should be: for every additional cc, you must increase the time you spend making sure your outgoing email is crisp and that it’s clear who needs to respond, if anyone. And if you reply to an email, take care to ask whether you really need to include everyone cc’ed on the original email.

9. Speak Softly
DO NOT USE ALL CAPS IN THE BODY OF YOUR EMAIL. It’s rather like screaming at someone. And they’re hard to read – as are most unusual fonts and colors. Simple sans serif fonts like Arial, Helvetica, Verdana work best. If you want to add some zing to your emails, design a personalized signature tag.

10. Attack Attachments.
Don’t use them unless they’re critical. Some people have all kinds of graphics files as logos or signatures that appear as attachments at the receiver. Not cool. Time is wasted trying to see if there’s something to open. Even worse is sending text as an attachment when it could just as easily have been included in the body of the email and saved that extra click-and-wait.
If you send an invite to an event, it’s fine to include an attachment that announces it visually. But:
– If there is a URL, include it in text form so it shows up as a clickable link. Or make the whole image itself a clickable link. Not fair to expect someone to retype a url !
– Please include the location, date and time in text format so that the information can be quickly copied and pasted. That way it can quickly be added to a calendar. (And error free. You don’t want “The Knickerbocker Club, 7:30 PM, black-tie required” to morph into
“The Kickboxer Club, 7:30 AM, black-belt required”.)

11. Make it easy to unsubscribe
If you send out email newsletters, please make it easy to stop the flow. Letters that prompt rage are not helping your brand!

12. Think about the thread
Some e-mails depend for their meaning on context. Which means it’s usually right to include the thread which they’re responding to. But it’s rare that a thread should extend to more than 3 emails. Before sending, cut the crap!

13. Don’t reply when angry
Just walk away from the computer. Stamp your feet. Scream out the window. Do not send an email until your emotions have calmed. One rude, jerky email can tar you for life… and spark an even worse response.

14. Use NNTR
“No need to respond.” Use it in a subject line, right before EOM. Or use it at the end of an email. What a gift to your recipient!

15. Pay a voluntary email tax
The reason email is escalating is because it’s free. No one wants to change that… but what if at the end of each month, you quickly totted up how many emails you had sent, multiply by the average number of cc’s, and pay that number of cents into a personal book-buying account. You’ll end up with a lot of great books… and it might just pull you away from the goddam computer for a bit! Speaking of which…

16. Switch off the computer!
This could be the most important rule of all. If we all agreed to spend less time doing email, we’d all get less email! Consider… calendaring half-days at work where you refuse to look at email. Consider… email-free weekends. Consider… setting up the following auto-response. “Thank you for your note. As a personal commitment to my and my family’s mental health, I now do email only on Wednesdays. I’ll reply to as many as I can next Wednesday. Thanks for writing. Don’t forget to smell the roses.”

Now it’s over to you. Which of these do you like? Which do you hate? Which need amending? And what new and better rules can you come up with? We’ll be monitoring the response carefully and will use the best of it to create the final charter. That will be something we hope people will link to in their email signatures. And maybe one day we’ll all get to live a little better, and write a little less !