The Email Charter: 10 rules to reverse email overload

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Have you heard of the Email Charter? Developed by TED’s Chris Anderson and Jane Wulf, the Email Charter is a manifesto for digital humanity, for spending less time on email, and for cutting each other some slack. We’ve been pointing people to it for years. Recently the Charter website went down, so we made our own version, inspired by the original. Here it is.

We’re all drowning in email. And the hours and hours we spend on it are making ever more work for our friends and colleagues. We can only reverse this by mutual agreement. Hence the need for some new rules, and this Charter… Please share it!

 

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 Responses are Not Rude
Let’s mutually agree to cut each other some slack. Just because you can respond fast doesn’t mean you should. Given the email load we’re all facing, it’s okay if replies take a while to come and if they don’t give detailed responses to all your questions. No one wants to come over as brusque, they could just be focussed, so please don’t take it personally. The British built an entire empire at a time when it took months for letters to be exchanged. We can still win this without being always on. We just want our lives back!

3. Make Subject Lines and Content Clearer
Start with a subject line that clearly labels the topic. Try including 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 colours.

4. Stop 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 agree to spend less time doing email, we’d all get less email. Consider blocking out half-days at work where you don’t go online. Or make a commitment to email-free weekends. Add an auto-responder in your off time that references this charter. And don’t forget to smell the roses.

 

Why Acting Alone is Not the Solution

The original Email Charter creators explained why we all need to work on this together:

The email problem is a modern tragedy of the commons. To fix a ‘commons’ problem, a community needs to come together and agree on new rules.

Email overload is something we are inadvertently doing to each other. You can’t solve this problem by acting alone. You will end up simply ignoring, delaying, or rushing responses to many incoming messages, and risk annoying people or missing something great. That prospect is stressful.

But if we can mutually change the ground rules, maybe we can make that stress go away.

That’s why an Email Charter is an idea worth spreading. Its core purpose is to reverse the underlying cause of the problem — the fact that email takes more time to respond to than it took to generate.

Each of its rules contributes to that goal. If they are adopted, the problem will gradually ease.

But nothing will happen unless the Charter is widely shared and adopted. The mechanism to achieve that is email itself.

If you like the Charter, add it to your email signature, and word will spread. Please help that happen!”

Please consider sharing the Charter with others by tweeting, blogging, or adding it to your email signature.

Thank you!

For more advice and a practical step by step guide to emptying your inbox, try the rest of the lessons in our Inbox Zero course. And you can find further tips for planning and organising your work in the wider Capacity Building programme.

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