10 Rules to Reverse the Email Spiral

— October 16, 2012

Being in business, chances are you have seen a TED talk and you know how visionary this nonprofit company devoted to “Ideas Worth Spreading” is. What started as a blog post, now read by nearly 100,000 people, by TED curator Chris Anderson and TED scribe Jane Wulf has now evolved into a vision for less email and a more manageable work day.

According to the charter web site, after nearly 45,000 people read the post and generated hundreds of tweets, comments and suggestions, the charter was formalized.

Anderson and Wulf say that “it takes more time to respond to an email, in aggregate, than the time it took to create it.” They do admit to this being counter-intuitive because, obviously, it's quicker to read than to write, but there are so many other steps involved when it comes to email that it’s a complete disruption.

You have to stop working, review the entire inbox and figure out what to read, open the email, figure out what to say, hit send and then try and pick up work where you left off before the inbox. Multiple this by how many times a day you check.

You also have to take into account the types of questions – and how many – that come in an email, how many people you have to respond to whether they all get the same answer. How much of the email do you have to read through to get to what concerns you? And so on, and so on. We all do it every day, sometimes every minute or two. After all, being addicted to being connected is a known issue.

Grabbing Our Sanity
Anderson and Wulf call this process a “deadly upward spiral.” And, with every email you send, you are creating the same distraction for all those to who you are sending, so it becomes a common problem.

“The common 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 rat’s nest of voracious demands on our time, energy and sanity,” according to Anderson and Wulf.

So, how do we become slightly saner again? The 10 rules below appear in the exact words of the charter. The authors ask you to “Please consider sharing the charter with others by tweeting, blogging or adding it to your email signature.” (of course)

10 Rules
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 where you can't go online. Or a commitment to email-free weekends. Or an 'auto-response' that references this charter. And don't forget to smell the roses.


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