Email is both the most useful tool I have for communicating and the most problematic.
It’s useful because it’s inexpensive to send and receive, integrated with many of my other communication and information tools (websites, phone texting, calendar and contacts), and able to work with multiple media, from text to images to video to links.
Best of all, it’s asynchronous: I can send you a message when I think of something, without worrying about interrupting you, and you can respond when it’s convenient. We don’t have to schedule the communication or stop what we’re doing to interact.
Except… email often is an interruption, even a disruption. It comes in without stop (either scheduled or when I check mail, interrupting myself) and feels as urgent as a phone call or a person popping in the door. A single question can require hours of research to respond. And a long and winding email takes time to read and understand, before I even begin to respond to it.
A few years ago, Mike Davidson proposed “A Lo-Fi Solution to E-Mail Overload: Sentenc.es.” The idea is that one chooses to write emails of no more than five sentences each, and to link in the email to an information page that explains why the email is short.
This is a great solution as far as it goes. It forces me, as a sender, to limit the commitment I make to the response, much as writing a tweet limits me to think in a 140 character space rather than an essay. It suggests that if I have multiple topics to communicate about, I should send them in distinct emails (especially useful for my recipients who use the emails as to-do list items).
Would short emails take longer to write? Yes and no. I’ve found they do require more time for editing, but I believe the resulting message is clearer, and therefore should save time overall in the conversation. Moreover, once I’ve written a few short messages I feel I get into the swing of the style, and subsequent messages become easier. (Again, this is like writing on Twitter, where after a while you begin to use common phrasing and abbreviation, and keeping your character count down isn’t such a chore.)
But here’s the rub: I want the messages I receive to be as short as the messages I send. If a message needs to be long, it shouldn’t be a message at all — it should be an attachment (if it’s a bunch of data I need) or a conversation.
How can I convey to business associates that we’ll all benefit if we whittle our messages to their essences?
I could post this proposition in my email signature, but that would obviously make every message long, defeating the purpose in part.
One thought I’ve had is to create a policy page, similar to five.sentenc.es, that briefly explains the concept and list a guaranteed response time for emailers who keep their emails short. Would people read it? Would it seem too inflexible or draconian?
Do you think setting a two-way short-emails-only policy is a good idea, from a business standpoint? What alternatives do you see? How could one set and enforce such a policy?
UPDATE: For a solution to a different but related problem, check out Thanks No, mentioned in the comments to Davidson’s original post I linked above.