Email Etiquette: How to Avoid Information Overload

A writer weighs in on streamlining online communications and salvaging email manners.

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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. 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 would pick up the phone, send aletter, 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.

I love the power of instant communication to connect us across continents. But the unintended consequence is that the volume of communication is expanding to the point where it threatens to take over our lives. An e-mail inbox has been deemed a to-do list that anyone in the world can add to.

Why is e-mail volume getting ever worse? I believe it’s because 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.

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. That lighthearted brainstorming led to a blog post about the problem—a post that has been viewed more than 60,000 times—and an e-mail code of conduct. The points we ended up with encourage senders to reduce the time, effort, and stress required of responders. The idea is not just to change how you e-mail but also to consider whether you should even be sending an e-mail in the first place.

More: Read the E-mail Code of Conduct list here »

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest