The email charter—a world wide movement to save our inboxes

One of the more popular memes on the internet this summer has been the email charter, a movement started by Chris Anderson, founder of TED and an internet bit wig. The idea is that email is getting out of hand for most people and if email users everywhere could adopt some sort of guidelines for using it, all of our lives would be immeasurably improved.

Here’s the problem, as the charter creators see it:

The average time taken to respond to an email is greater, in aggregate, than the time it took to create.

This is counter-intuitive because it’s quicker to read than to write. So you might assume a typical email takes a few minutes to write, but only a few seconds to read. However, five other factors are outweighing this.

  • The act of processing an email consists of much 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 — which may well involve writing an email of similar length back 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 full minute of your available cognitive time.
  • Many emails contain open-ended questions that can’t rapidly be responded to. “What’s your opinion on all this?” “How should I move forward?” Easy to ask, hard to answer.
  • Many emails are sent to multiple recipients. It takes no time to add another cc, but each additional recipient multiplies the total response time demanded.
  • Many emails contain additional text that has been copied and pasted from other documents or a lengthy thread that is simply being re-forwarded.
  • Many emails contain links to web pages or videos. Easy to add a link. But it may take minutes to view it.

Here are the proposed guidelines, obviously purely optional for email users around the world:

  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.

All this got me thinking—what if we modified/extended this charter to work for the westminster community? What suggestions would your modify/remove? What guidelines would you add?

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About John Burk

The ramblings of a physics teacher.
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7 Responses to The email charter—a world wide movement to save our inboxes

  1. I certainly think it would be a good idea to present these ideas to the W. community, but I think to ask people to adopt it would be a bit one-size-fits-all.

    Chris Anderson no doubt receives WAY more email than I do. And probably most people on our campus. When you receive as much email as he does, you probably do need to worry about where each 30-second unit is going.

    I have more time on my hands than C.A. (I assume) and I almost certainly receive less email. So, while many of his ideas are useful (e.g. thread, attachments, too many cc’s, disconnecting, and others), I am less certain about #1, 2 and 4. Particularly 2 and 4. Sometimes open-ended questions need to be asked; sometimes brevity is impossible and it over-simplifies a problem.

    Finally, I think it is professional to return emails and calls as soon as possible. It’s just good manners.

    • Good points Gavin. I ESPECIALLY agree about returning emails ASAP – it’s rude not to.

    • John Burk says:

      Gavin,
      I think you’re right. I don’t think Anderson is trying to propose hard and fast rules, but more like guidelines. When you get an email from a parent that reads “Can you tell me how billy is doing?”, It takes way more energy to process than “Has Billy completed all his make up work for you.” That’s the point. Be specific when you can.

      And I agree about email, and I have someone of a crazy reputation among my students for responding to email crazy fast, with an average response well under 5 minutes. But I think this is an unreasonable burden for everyone to carry. Most things can wait a few hours, or even a day for a response. If a parent emails you, you should respond that day, but I think a perfectly ok response is “Thanks for your email, I would love to give you a detailed response about this matter, but I am very busy at the moment and will respond in X days.” (where X is less than two, hopefully.). I also particularly dislike it (even though I do it), when someone sends an email, and then less than an hour later asks “Did you get my email?” This is something I’m working on with myself, and if I ever ask one of you, “did you get my email?” mere moments after sending it, please feel free remind me of this.

      • Agnes says:

        Y’all,
        1) I find that most of these guidelines are common sense.
        2) The comments about prompt replies are right on.
        3) I know some people do not read anything in an email if it looks too long.
        4) I did not use to ask “Did you get my email?” but I have discovered that people not always get my email, and sometimes I do not get theirs either.
        🙂
        Agnes

  2. Stan Tucker says:

    As I was reading Chris Anderson’s guidelines, It stuck me that what so much technology promotes, not just e-mail, is quantity over quality, a real problem in my mind. Because technology allows us to do so much more, we attempt a great deal more. But given that we have only so much time and energy, we end up sacrificing quality, simply because we do not have enough time or energy to do so many more things well. Often I receive e-mails from both students and adults that are have been poorly written, do not say all that needs to be said and simply do not follow the rules of basic courtesy, like addressing me, the recipient, by name. And I not just referring to those e-mails sent from phones.

    In contrast, when I get an e-mail from Paula Watson, it is always well-worded and structured, contains all pertinent information, and follows the sort of rules of polite social interaction sited above. Even though Paula is a very good writer, she has told me that in situations where one of us has needed to send a delicate and thorough e-mail to an AQT student, parent or coach, and the job has fallen to her, she has spend the better part of an planning period composing that e-mail. The time and thought she has put into that e-mail shines forth, though, with the e-mail end up saying exactly what needs to be said, in exactly the way it needs to be said. I realize that Chris Anderson has proposed these guidelines specifically so that we have more time for the kind of important interaction via e-mail (and other technologies) I have just described. And yet, as we rush off to the next thing that technology has made possible, often those interactions that should be characterized by quality are not.

    I don’t think it’s ludicrous to expect students to send us e-mails that are clear because they have been basically well-written and well-structured. At times I have subsequently cringed at mistakes I have made in e-mails in my haste to finish them and move on. While some of these guidelines make sense and will allow us more time to focus more on quality over quantity, they won’t solve the ever widening gap between these two that the use of so much technology seems to be fomenting and perpetuating.

  3. Stan Tucker says:

    As I was reading Chris Anderson’s guidelines, it stuck me that what so much technology promotes, not just e-mail, is quantity over quality, a real problem in my mind. Because technology allows us to do so much more, we attempt a great deal more. But given that we have only so much time and energy, we end up sacrificing quality, simply because we do not have enough time or energy to do so many more things well. Often I receive e-mails from both students and adults that are have been poorly written, do not say all that needs to be said and simply do not follow the rules of basic courtesy, like addressing me, the recipient, by name. And I not just referring to those e-mails sent from phones. In contrast, when I get an e-mail from Paula Watson, it is always well-worded and structured, contains all pertinent information, and follows the sort of rules of polite social interaction sited above. Even though Paula is a very good writer, she has told me that in situations where one of us has needed to send a delicate and thorough e-mail to an AQT student, parent or coach, and the job has fallen to her, she has spend the better part of an planning period composing that e-mail. The time and thought she has put into that e-mail shines forth, though, with the e-mail ending up saying exactly what needs to be said, in exactly the way it needs to be said. I realize that Chris Anderson has proposed these guidelines specifically so that we have more time for the kind of important interaction via e-mail (and other technologies) I have just described. And yet, as we rush off to the next thing that technology has made possible, often those interactions that should be characterized by quality are not. I don’t think it’s ludicrous to expect students to send us e-mails that are clear because they have been basically well-written and well-structured. At times I have subsequently cringed at mistakes I have made in e-mails in my haste to finish them and move on. While some of these guidelines make sense and will allow us more time to focus more on quality over quantity, they won’t solve the ever widening gap between these two that the use of so much technology seems to be fomenting and perpetuating.

  4. Chris Harrow says:

    The issue of clutter isn’t only email. Twitter and many other information sources add a great deal of time to my “processing load”. No matter the venue, send only RELEVANT information. Just my opinion.

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