Curing Message Overload

E-tools have swarmed in without rules or etiquette for effective use. Let's create some.

By Joe Robinson

We are said to be a nation of laws, but any desk jockey knows that's an illusion. All order, if not liberty itself, ends where the E-tools begin. Unbounded electronic communications have turned civil society into an anarchic, free-fire zone of ceaseless incoming, stealing our time and productivity. The volume of electronic messaging keeps mounting-without rules, limits, or traffic lights.

The average corporate user gets 133 E-mails a day. Not surprisingly, a survey by Day-Timers found that instant communications technology is making it harder, not easier, to get things done. The number of people who feel very productive has fallen from 83% in 1994 to just 51% today. It's hard to find optimal performance in a 24/7 distraction derby. One Microsoft study found that it took workers 15 minutes to get mental focus back after answering an E-mail.

In the spirit of Madison and Jefferson, it's time to reclaim liberty, not to mention productivity, with some boundary setting. Since the rules are nonexistent, we're not breaking any, only bad habits that have been allowed to pile up in a vacuum of E-discipline. It's time to redraw the vanished line between work and home, and between legitimate office communications and compulsive junk with an E-Tool Bill of Rights: (See left column of this page)

Most of the E-chaos today is enabled by our limitless need to be wanted. The E-Tool Bill of Rights helps do what the Founding Fathers knew we had to--save us from ourselves.

(c) 2006 Joe Robinson, published in Fast Company magazine

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The E-Tool Bill of Rights

Article 1: Any email longer than two paragraphs shall not be sent. Instead, time shall be saved by telephone contact.

Article 2: Every person shall practice the 100-Foot Rule, getting up from their posteriors to deliver the message in person to anyone within 100 feet of their desk.

Article 3: The overloaded in-boxer shall check messages at designated times to prevent attention deficit.

Article 4: There shall be a requirement of determining urgency before response to messaging.

Article 5: No book-length thread E-mails, or dispatches as long as "War and Peace" shall be allowed.

Article 6: Companies shall establish policies to control e-transmissions as if they were emissions.

Article 7: Everyone shall resist the temptation to send one- and two-word responses, such "thanks," "got it."

Article 8: There shall be no assumption of unlimited e-access simply because the tools allow it. Message management shall be instituted.

Article 9: Permission shall be granted to use auto-responders to block out focus zones for optimum productivity.

Article 10: E-contact-free zones/days shall be negotiated to improve performance and jump-start innovation.

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