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Closing Pandora's in-box

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.

But the unintended consequence is that communication volume is expanding to the point where it threatens to take over our lives. An e-mail in-box 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 in-box, 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 in-box and drafted what we called the E-mail Charter.

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 okay 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 E-mail 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 in-boxes! Adopt the E-mail Charter!" It's short and to the point, just like e-mail should be.

Chris Anderson is a media entrepreneur and the curator of the TED Conference and TED.com.

Closing Pandora's in-box 10/08/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 7, 2011 6:10pm]

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