E-mail Sanity

I am a big fan of the spiritual disciplines.  (See, e.g., Celebration of Discipline — The Path to Spiritual Growth by Richard J. Foster.)  Not that I do really well in practicing them — but I do find them very useful when I do.  One of the lesser known of the spiritual disciplines is the discipline of simplicity.  Now you’re probably thinking:  “Really Ron, I don’t know anyone more simple that you.”  Well, you may be right and if that was what I meant by the discipline of simplicity I would indeed be a model for someone who had mastered simplicity.  But, no, that is not the type of simplicity I’m speaking of.  The aspect of the simplicity discipline to which I refer, and there are several others, deals with decluttering one’s life so that it will be free to concentrate on the more important matters.  Seeking to exercise simplicity involves one’s time, possessions, interests, and activities.  In short, just about every  area of a person’s life can, I believe, be improved  by the proper exercise of the spiritual discipline of simplicity.   In evaluating my own life I’ve discovered that the use of e-mail has become a major player.  Not that it is evil, but as with other modern conveniences, it can consume an inordinate amount of time and attention which might be better used in other pursuits.   

The  following is an article by Chris Anderson, reposted by permission,  Mr. Anderson is a media entrepreneur and curator of the  TED conference and TED.com.   Click HERE for link. I believe the suggested Charter at the end of the article will help promote email sanity in my own life PLUS help me be more considerate of others.  Perhaps you will want to check it out and see if it might be useful to you. [RMF]

TED Conferences

[TED is a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Since then its scope has become much broader.]

How to stop e-mail overload? Think before you hit send.

Chris Anderson

By Chris Anderson

Like many people, the first thing I do on a workday morning is check my e-mail.

A random sample might include a message from the colleague of a friend about his start-up venture. Another is about a staff-related issue. A third is a discussion, copied to six people, about an upcoming charitable event.

These e-mails have nothing in common — except for the fact that none of their issues had been on my agenda that morning. I don’t even know one of the senders. But although it took only a few minutes to read these notes, I suddenly feel pressure to develop coherent thoughts on complex questions regarding someone else’s business enterprise, office politics and world peace.

It’s barely 8 a.m., and I’m already drowning in e-mail. In the blink of an eye, my day’s priorities have been commandeered. And more missives keep pouring in, including tweets, Google Plus notifications, Facebook status updates and instant messages. It’s essentially a fire hose of information all day long.

In the not-too-distant past, when you wanted to set up a meeting, ask for help and advice, or simply share something of interest, you had a few choices. You could pick up the phone, send a letter or meet face to face. Each involved a certain amount of effort, tact and planning. Unless you were extremely close friends — or in extreme crisis — you’d have been unlikely to barge into someone’s house or office and expect, then and there, 20 minutes of thoughtful, focused attention.

But today, communication is friction-free. You can send a message from anywhere in the world, at any time of the day, and somehow feel concerned, miffed even, if you don’t get a reply within a few hours.

I love the power of instant communication to connect us across continents. Barring spammers, most e-mailers mean well. We get excited about spreading the ideas that energized us that morning. We feel sure that the recipient will appreciate being asked for his or her opinion — after all, who doesn’t like to have someone pay attention to their thoughts? And of course, sometimes we’re just trying to do our jobs.

Chris Anderson speaks at TED Conference

But the unintended consequence is that communication volume is expanding to the point where it threatens to take over our lives. An e-mail inbox has been described as a to-do list that anyone in the world can add to. If you’re not careful, it can gobble up most of your week. Then you’ve become a reactive robot responding to other people’s requests, instead of a proactive agent addressing your own priorities.

Why is e-mail volume getting ever worse? I believe it’s because of a simple fact: E-mail is easier to create than to respond to. This seems counterintuitive — after all, it’s quicker to read than to write. But reading a message is just the start. It may contain a hard-to-answer question, such as “What are your thoughts on this?” Or a link to a Web page. Or an attachment. And it may be copied to a dozen other people, all of whom will soon chime in with their own comments. Every hour spent writing and sending messages consumes more than an hour of the combined attention of the various recipients. And so, without meaning to, we’re all creating a growing problem for one another.

It’s a modern “tragedy of the commons.” The commons in question here is the world’s pool of attention. Instant communication makes it a little too easy to grab a piece of that attention. The result of all those little acts of grabbing is a giant drain on our time, energy and sanity.

One afternoon, after yet another tiring sparring session with the 200-plus messages in my inbox, my colleague Jane Wulf and I made a list of the most burdensome e-mails we’d encountered that day. We hoped to at least get a good laugh over them — such as the proposal typed entirely in electric-blue capital letters; the note with six attachments, five of which were legal disclaimers; the 80-page manuscript with requests for feedback; or the 17 back-and-forth e-mails to schedule a single lunch meeting.

That lighthearted brainstorming led to a blog post about the problem in which we asked people to share their suggestions — a post that has been viewed more than 60,000 times.

We had made a list to vent our own frustration — and maybe to procrastinate answering the e-mails — but it seemed to have struck a chord. So we got more serious about doing battle with the inbox and drafted what we called the Email Charter.(For the full charter, see emailcharter.org.)

Why a charter? Because to fix a communal problem, a community needs to come together and agree to new rules. You can’t solve e-mail overload by acting alone. You will end up simply ignoring, delaying or rushing responses to many messages, and risk annoying people or missing something great.

The 10 points we ended up with on the charter all encourage senders to reduce the time, effort and stress required of responders. The first point is reinforced by the rest: Respect recipients’ time. The charter also reminds people that short or slow responses aren’t rude, that copying dozens of people on a conversation is burdensome and that subject lines should clearly label the topic. (Additional advice in the “celebrate clarity” section: Avoid strange fonts and colors.) The point is not just to change how you e-mail, but to consider whether you should even be sending an e-mail in the first place.

We know that checking our e-mail every five minutes is a potent form of procrastination. But what if sending messages is another side of that coin? What if sending an e-mail is an excuse to not think through a problem — a hope that we can grab a bite of someone else’s attention and make them do our thinking for us, when what we need to do is to clarify our own intentions and make our own decisions? What if we send a half-baked note when what we need is to risk personal contact via phone, through setting up a lunch or just by walking to the other side of the office? Maybe we send an e-mail when we want to pretend, to ourselves or someone else, that we’re being productive. Or maybe we send another rushed e-mail when what we need to do is slow down, take a break and go for a walk outside.

Here’s one example. Recently I had to resolve a dispute involving someone who had been introduced to me by a colleague. To avoid additional embarrassment, I first wrote an explanatory e-mail to my colleague — and ended with words that our charter considers taboo: “Any thoughts on what I should do here?” An open question like that constitutes a lazy shifting of effort from me to her.

Happily, I did not hit send. It didn’t take long to figure out what I should write instead, which was, “Is it OK if I reach out to your contact directly, or do you need to do so first?”

After sending, I could almost hear a sigh of relief from across town. In turn, I greatly appreciated her quick reply: “Fine for you to do. Thanks.” If I’d sent the first version of my e-mail, it might have taken her an hour of irritation to untangle my situation and figure out what I needed.

I have another colleague who, while wonderful, was in the habit of sending chatty e-mails consisting of long paragraphs and open-ended questions. Then one day she sent a message that consisted of one crisp, informative paragraph, ending with a note that she’d read the charter. The e-mail’s final line was “NNTR: No need to respond.” I burst into a smile.

Instant communication is great. I love it and depend on it. The Email Charter is a modest idea, but in our world of information overload, a few small changes can reap a surprisingly large reward. By putting a few more minutes of thought into the end of that e-mail, you save your recipients multiples of that amount of time. But nothing will happen unless the charter is widely shared and adopted. The irony is that the best way to achieve that will be through e-mail. If people who like the charter add it to their e-mail signatures, word will spread. One line works: “Save our inboxes! Adopt theEmail Charter!” It’s short and to the point, just like e-mail should be.

Email Charter

10 Rules to Reverse the Email Spiral

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

2. Short or Slow is not Rude
Let’s mutually agree to cut each other some slack. Given the email load we’re all facing, it’s OK if replies take a while coming and if they don’t give detailed responses to all your questions. No one wants to come over as brusque, so please don’t take it personally. We just want our lives back!

3. Celebrate Clarity
Start with a subject line that clearly labels the topic, and maybe includes a status category [Info], [Action], [Time Sens] [Low Priority]. Use crisp, muddle-free sentences. If the email has to be longer than five sentences, make sure the first provides the basic reason for writing. Avoid strange fonts and colors.

4. Quash Open-Ended Questions
It is asking a lot to send someone an email with four long paragraphs of turgid text followed by “Thoughts?”. Even well-intended-but-open questions like “How can I help?” may not be that helpful. Email generosity requires simplifying, easy-to-answer questions. “Can I help best by a) calling b) visiting or c) staying right out of it?!”

5. Slash Surplus cc’s
cc’s are like mating bunnies. For every recipient you add, you are dramatically multiplying total response time. Not to be done lightly! When there are multiple recipients, please don’t default to ‘Reply All’. Maybe you only need to cc a couple of people on the original thread. Or none.

6. Tighten the Thread
Some emails depend for their meaning on context. Which means it’s usually right to include the thread being responded to. But it’s rare that a thread should extend to more than 3 emails. Before sending, cut what’s not relevant. Or consider making a phone call instead.

7. Attack Attachments
Don’t use graphics files as logos or signatures that appear as attachments. Time is wasted trying to see if there’s something to open. Even worse is sending text as an attachment when it could have been included in the body of the email.

8. Give these Gifts: EOM NNTR
If your email message can be expressed in half a dozen words, just put it in the subject line, followed by EOM (= End of Message). This saves the recipient having to actually open the message. Ending a note with “No need to respond” or NNTR, is a wonderful act of generosity. Many acronyms confuse as much as help, but these two are golden and deserve wide adoption.

9. Cut Contentless Responses
You don’t need to reply to every email, especially not those that are themselves clear responses. An email saying “Thanks for your note. I’m in.” does not need you to reply “Great.” That just cost someone another 30 seconds.

10. Disconnect!
If we all agreed to spend less time doing email, we’d all get less email! Consider calendaring half-days at work (or at home, RMF) where you can’t go online. Or a commitment to email-free weekends. Or an ‘auto-response’ that references this charter. (I’ve started using a link to this charter as a component of my email signature/info. RMF)  And don’t forget to smell the roses.


About ronfurg

Former naval officer, federal investigator, forensic scientist, senior executive service member and pastor. In retirement serves as volunteer and life group leader at New Life Christian Church (www.newlife4me.com). Devoted to beautiful wife, kids and grandkids. Looking forward to the time when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord of all and that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
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