2012 Challenge: Email on a "Human Scale"

My smart colleague Dr. Wendy Wyatt passed along an opinion piece published earlier this fall in the Star Tribune. She knew I would like and applaud it. And indeed, the content was such that I can’t quite shake it from my digital-age brain. In fact, every ding of new email, log-in prompt and face lit up by a smart phone around campus brings my attention back to Chris Anderson’s commentary, “You've got mail! (Which means you've got demands).”

I mostly share his opinions, and they have come to claim a place in the front of my tech-stretched mind. With the new year nearly upon us, it seems timely to ask if Anderson might have put his finger on not only a profound problem but also a rather brilliant solution – one that can help all of us with an email inbox make sure next year is better than last. Could we be happier and healthier if we become better e-mailers? Sounds easier than losing 15 pounds!

Anderson’s day begins, like mine and likely yours, with a glance at his inbox: “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.”

He goes on, and this is where I started getting giddy and wanted to know more. I can’t stop thinking, “Oh my goodness. He’s pinpointed the problem to which I need a solution … as does, it seems, almost every adult, friend, student, colleague, administrator, staff, parent and pal I know.” He writes:

"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."

He goes on:

"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."

And I continue to nod my head and simultaneously smile (“he’s hit it”) and grimace (“so sadly true”) at what he observes:

"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."

You resonate with what Anderson is describing, aren’t you? If not, you probably would have stopped reading by now. But you want the solution … I know! I did, too.

First, what Anderson recognizes is that fixing a “communal problem” requires an entire community getting on board and agreeing to new rules. And those guidelines are precisely the content of Anderson and Jane Wulf’’s “Email Charter,” which I have adopted and hope everyone at UST and beyond will, too.

Second, the charter’s 10 email rules guide writers to reduce the time and effort required of receivers. As Anderson suggests, “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.” Here is one of the don’t-miss bits: “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.”

While I can’t promise, nor do I fully expect, that changing email habits will change the world, what I can for sure promise is this: Any email in 2012 sent from my account to yours will be brief, thoughtful (I hope), and kind (that’s not in the charter, but it’s my own personal rule). It also will include an invitation after my signature to join Anderson’s mission – one that is now mine too: “Save our Inboxes; Adopt the Email Charter!”

It’s almost 2012. Will you join me in this community effort? Please.