★ Debating the Email Charter

Email Overload

Email Overload

I’m sure that by now many of you have read or heard about the idea of an Email Charter by Chris Anderson.  It ended up spawning the site http://www.emailcharter.org/ which lists the 10 Rules to Reverse the Email Spiral.

This thread created quite a spirited discussion at Identropy with some pushing strongly for better email restraint, while others believe one should err on the side of over-communication, letting the receiver decide for him or herself what is important, rather than the sender.  I’d like to outline each of the arguments and share my own opinion:

Pro-Charter:

  1. Email can be a major timesink.  The more people are cc’d on emails, the more time is consumed by reading email.
  2. Brevity is a virtue.  The ability to be concise with language can more precisely illustrate a point while consuming less of the readers’ time.
  3. Appropriate communication is better than over-communication.  Often when over-communication occurs important emails get lost in the shuffle and ignored.

Anti-Charter:

  1. We should err on the side of over-communication when working with customers, so that the left hand always knows what the right hand is doing.
  2. Everyone on a project should know all the information about the project.
  3. “If it wasn’t written, it wasn’t said”.  Always follow up a phone conversation with an email summary.
  4. I would rather have too much information than not enough.
  5. Today’s effective professional doesn’t operate on a M-F, 8-5 schedule.

After weighing the pros and cons, I have to side with the Email Charter.  Reading email has become a constant interruption and a chore for many.  The key is to be thoughtful and respectful of others’ time.  If you can say it in 2 sentences, then please do it.  If I send you an email about something, don’t respond back with “Got it.”  Its pretty safe to assume you got it.  

If you want to be cc’d on everything in a project then let everyone know and they can cc you, but don’t assume everyone else feels the same the way.  This allows the reader to have better control over their inbox and therefore their time.

Item 2 of the charter, Short or Slow is not Rude, addresses one of my biggest beefs with email: the idea that you should respond to email within minutes of receiving it.  If you need an urgent response, IM or call me.  I may not be sitting in front of my email.

Just this week I had someone ask my boss why I was ignoring them because I hadn’t responded to an email within 40 minutes.  I typically only even check my email every 30 minutes to an hour, and rarely check work email in the evenings or on weekends.  It’s nothing against you, I just don’t want email interrupting a meeting or my train of thought during the work day, and I don’t want work to interfere with my personal life.

Some may argue that you have to be available after hours to be effective.  I would argue that if you can’t get it done during your normal business hours, then you are either overworked or ineffective.

While I like the overall charter, One thing I would add is “Be polite when being concise.”  I’m old fashioned and still include a salutation at the beginning of virtually all of my email correspondence, even if it is a short one sentence response (Many people think I’m crazy for doing this).

I’m not saying that a salutation is necessary for all emails, but I am saying that one should at least be aware of how the recipient could view the tone of your response.  It can sometimes be difficult to discern tone in an email.  I typically give all my emails a quick second read before sending.

I think the email charter is a step in the right direction.  If we can all be thoughtful and concise when sending emails, it can greatly reduce the amount of time spent on checking email, as well as the distractions it causes.

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