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Too Much Email?
Published on September 29, 2011 by Sara Foss

Chris Anderson has an interesting piece in the Washington Post about the "problem" of email overload.

I put the word problem in quotes, because while I'm sure email overload is a problem for a somewhat famous media figure, I doubt it's a huge concern for the average joe. For instance, Anderson writes, "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." I get a fair amount of email, but not 200-plus messages a day. And if a message seems particularly burdensome, I delete it. Or ignore it. Most of my contacts seem to have the same attitude.

Anyway, Anderson and Wulf created something called the Email Charter, to help people deal with the vexing problem of too much email.

Anderson writes:

"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."

After reading the entire essay, my main reaction is one of relief. I love checking my inbox, and I hardly ever feel compelled to reply to my email immediately. I do not, in my opinion, receive too much email, nor do I feel particularly burdened by the moderate amount of email I do receive. But if you're as popular as Chris Anderson, feel free to check out his Email Charter.

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