Introducing the Email Charter, which aims to put our exchanges back on a human scale.
Like many people, the first thing I do on a workday morning is check my e-mail.
A sample might include a message from the colleague of a friend about his startup venture. Another is about a staff issue. A third is a discussion, copied to six people, about an upcoming charitable event.
These e-mails have nothing in common -- except 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, office politics and world peace.
It's barely 8 a.m., and I'm already drowning in e-mail. My day's priorities have been commandeered. And more missives keep pouring in, including tweets, Google Plus notifications, Facebook status updates and instant messages. A fire hose of information all day long.
In the not-too-distant past, when you wanted to set up a meeting, ask for advice, or simply share something of interest, you could pick up the phone, send a letter or meet face to face. Each involved 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 miffed if you don't get a reply within a few hours.
I love the power of instant communication. But the unintended consequence is that communication volume is expanding to the point where it threatens to take over our lives.
An e-mail inbox 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.
E-mail is easier to create than to respond to. 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 website. Or an attachment. And it may be copied to a dozen other people, all of whom will soon chime in with their own comments.
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.
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.
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 in which we asked people to share their suggestions -- a post that has been viewed more than 60,000 times.
We had struck a chord. So we got more serious about doing battle with the inbox and drafted what we called the Email Charter.
To fix a communal problem, a community needs to come together and agree to new rules. You can't solve e-mail overload acting alone.
The 10 points we ended up with on the charter encourage senders to reduce the time and effort 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.
The point is not just to change how you e-mail, but to consider whether you should be sending an e-mail in the first place.
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?"
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 appreciated her quick reply: "Fine for you to do. Thanks."
If I'd sent the first version, it might have taken her an hour of irritation to untangle my situation and figure out what I needed.
Another colleague was in the habit of sending chatty e-mails with 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 final line: "NNTR: No need to respond."
I burst into a smile.
The Email Charter is a modest idea, but a few small changes can reap a 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 inboxes! Adopt the Email Charter!"
Short and to the point, just like e-mail should be.
* * *
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.