Reading and replying to email requires a lot of time. Smartphones and texting may be the thing now, but email is still the killer app, especially in the workplace.
I recently saw that Chris Anderson (WIRED editor, author, TED conference guy) created an "Email Charter" and posted 10 Rules to Reverse the Email Spiral. He figures that you can't solve this problem acting alone - despite lots of articles about how to have a "zero inbox". He thinks we need to change the ground rules. He is particularly perturbed by email that takes more time to respond to than it took to generate.
I also saw a response to the Charter by The New York Times’ technology columnist, David Pogue, who admits to his own public-figure email problems, but also sees changing other people's habits as the only workable solution.
I agree but I'm less than confident that we can change the world than I was as a college sophomore. Still, I am a lifelong teacher, so here is my list culled from their lists (see, I'm already saving you time) of things we all can do that will help the problem.
The big goal is to minimize the time your email will take to process and that does require taking more time at your end before sending.
It's OK if replies take a while coming and if they don't give detailed responses to all your questions
Clarity - use relevant subject lines - and change them when the conversation changes
No odd fonts and colors
Avoid open-ended questions (Status? Thoughts? What's next?) These short queries require a lot of time to answer. Administrators seem to like them. ("How can we use social media effectively? Thoughts?)
Think twice on cc's - at work, they are often cya's (Cover Your Ass) but it fills other inboxes and increases the chance of you getting multiple replies
Think three times before you click "Reply All" Wow, can you get in trouble doing that too quickly!
Cut the thread - the thread is all of those earlier emails that are at the bottom of your mail. If there are more than three, maybe you need to make a phonecall or visit their office (especially when the person you're mailing is in the same office/building)
Graphics files (logos, signatures) that appear as attachments suck.
Why do I have to open a Word or PDF file attachment to read something that could have been in the email itself?
Trim your signature lines - I get ones that are quite a bit longer than the message. You can have different ones and you probably don't need to send everyone your fax number or include Bible quotes. David Pogue calls those legal disclaimers that some companies use "Legal Vomit". Has that silliness ever protected a company from anything? They are like the tags on mattresses that say "Don't remove this tag".
How about ending a note with “no reply necessary” so that's clear? Maybe we can make NRN a popular shortcut.
If you really must blast out a message (or joke or whatever) use BCC and protect your friends' e-mail address and privacy. Those mails get forwarded and eventually someone scrapes those addresses for spamming or hits "Reply All" to tell you (and now all 35 of the rest of us) that they are ROFL.
And about those Forwarded mails... get rid of the carets (>>>>>>) and earlier parts of the thread. Remember when people passed jokes along in the office by photocopying the photocopy? By copy number 25, bits of dust were the size of letters. Carets are the dust motes of electronic mail.
And was that really worth forwarding? If you had to pay for a stamp to forward it, you probably would forward about 1% of the things you pass along electronically.
When replying to that email that has multiple statements or questions, you can reply inline - hit the Return after each one and type your answer there, creating a little dialogue. (Some people use bold, caps or colors, but a line return or two should be sufficient).
The Email Charter says that "If we all agreed to spend less time doing email, we'd all get less email" and that's true. It also suggests that we consider "calendaring half-days at work where you can't go online" which is much more difficult. If the Internet goes down at the college where I work, I feel like we should send everyone home as you hear the work gears grind to a halt.
Email-free weekends are a nice idea. Unfortunately, they lead to stuffed-inbox Mondays...