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The e-vils of e-mail

Johnson’s First Sign of Technology Literacy: Knowing when to use technology and when not to use technology. (More rules.)

In the September 2011 Educational Leadership journal, Principal Thomas R. Hoerr lamented that he was "too plugged in" - that e-mail was trapping him at his desk, writing:

I know I'm not alone in spending hours each day initiating and responding to e-mails. Like many of you, I receive nearly 200 e-mails each day. Although some are junk (I can't believe how many lotteries I've won, even when I didn't enter them!), the bulk of them are from staff members, students' parents, or other educators. I feel compelled to respond to them all. Almost every message is a piece of an ongoing dialogue, and if I'm absent, what does that say? So I usually enter the e-fray, sometimes sending lengthy comments and occasionally offering a pithy retort. Consequently, e-mail is with me way too much. I check my e-mail before my first cup of morning coffee and after my evening is over (and sometimes when I wake up in the night).

In yesterday's Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Chris Anderson offers a similar tale of being overwhelmed:

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.

Anderson then offers The E-mail charter

10 Rules to Reverse the Email Spiral

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. 


I can identify with both Hoerr and Anderson. I get dozens and dozens of e-mails each day that beg a response. And I am sure others on staff would accuse me of being far too ready to send out e-mail myself. (I really am going to re-read the Charter now and then.)

But I can also offer a couple other e-mail problems that seems just as pernicious.

The first is blaming a lack of an e-mail response on a lack of progress on a task. When asked why something is not done, nine times out ten the response is: "Well, I sent an e-mail and I haven't heard back."

The second problem is trying to solve problems that carry emotional baggage or are very complex using e-mail alone. When an exchange gets emotional in e-mail, I've never seen it get more empathetic or resolvable - only worse. If you can't solve your problem in a single e-mail exchange, it's time to try another means of communication.

Here's a pretty good solution to both these problems - pick up the damn phone and call. Or even better, if geography is not an issue, go visit the other person. It is cruel to give bad news to another person unless you can look them in the eye. Compliments seem disingenuous when dashed off in a quick e-mail. (And how do you really feel about birthday wishes on Facebook?) And if a person won't make the time to visit with me about a problem, I take it as a sign that the problem just isn't that important.

I love e-mail. In its place. Happy Friday.

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Reader Comments (2)

Ah, the Irony. Immediately below the article is a link that helps us "email the article to a friend".

I am as guilty of email abuse as anyone - often sending out campus-wide emails that are more than 5 sentences. This week I resolved to appear less curmudgeonly via email, and I think it worked. I sent one campus-wide email on Wednesday, and I am proud to say the email was one sentence in length. I also included a picture from LOLcats (baby steps, people), which got some positive remarks from some staff members. I felt compelled to send one out Thursday when I inadvertently crashed the school website while cleaning up some old files. I needed staff to re-send me some links, so I felt this one was justified.

I resolve to send no more than three campus-wide email messages per week. No message will be more than five sentences, and every email will include something uplifting, funny, or positive.

October 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLen


We have two email lists in our district - an official one and an informal one. I restrict how much I send to the official list, but the informal one - things for sale, buy a raffle ticket, etc. - I don't worry much about since membership in it is optional as a staff member.


October 3, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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