Chris Anderson (the founder of TED, not the Editor of US Wired) has launched an appeal to help create an Email charter in an effort to find a solution to email overload. His point is a simple one. We're drowning in the stuff and every year it gets a little worse.
The problem is not with the technology but with the way in which we use it. Over-zealous use of copy-in and reply-all, open ended questions, cutting and pasting into emails, the context created by long email chains. All of which often means that the total time it takes to respond to an email is more than the time it took to create it.
It's possible to be disciplined in our own use of email of-course. To batch time in our working day, restrict the number of times we access it. We've all heard of this approach yet almost no-one follows it. Because as this experiment shows, it's far from easy. And as this fascinating Guardian piece from a couple of years ago pointed out, email is addictive in exactly the same way as slot machines are: a 'variable interval reinforcement schedule' which rewards actions only sometimes and not in a predictable way, and which has been established as the way to train in the strongest habits. So usually when we check email there's not much of interest but every now and then there's something really good, which is enough to make it difficult to resist checking it frequently.
This is a serious problem. Despite the emergence of some powerful alternatives, the amount of time we spend with email still increases and it is an ingrained habit that is being reinforced. Many people feel compelled to spend a significant part of their working day in their inbox. The hours that we work are longer than ever, the degree to which work encroaches on the rest of our lives greater than ever, and email is a prime culprit. We check it more often than we think and each time we do it takes a significant amount of time (an average of 64 seconds according to a study by Loughborough University) to recover our train of thought. We then feel compelled to deal with it immediately so that it does not become another thing on our to do list, meaning that productivity can be destroyed. In fact it's a prime candidate for what you might call Unproductivity.
This is a behavioural issue. It's notable that when companies (including Deloitte and Intel) have trialed no email days in an attempt to help deal with the overload problem, they have proved entirely ineffective because they don't help people to change their behaviour whilst they are actually using email.
As Chris says, this is a 'tragedy of the commons', the commons in question being the world's pool of attention. If email makes it too easy to grab a small piece of that attention, then "the unintended consequence of all those little acts of grabbing is a giant rats nest of voracious demands on our time, energy and sanity". A commons problem requires a community to come together to agree new rules and avoid this "escalating spiral of obligation and stress", so hence the email charter.
We need to find a better way of working and Chris's idea, and his candidate rules, are not a bad place to start.