Emails take up a lot of time – 28% of an average working week, in fact, according to this study from 2012. As a freelancer, you’ll no doubt rely on email as your primary form of communication, so for you it might take up even more time.

Personally, I love emails, and I keep on top of my inbox with the hyper-attentiveness of an over-excited dog, waiting to be thrown a stick for the twentieth time that minute. However, I realise that not everyone shares my slightly weird level of enthusiasm.

Communication by email is not only time-consuming, it can also be incredibly frustrating. How many times have you waited ages for a reply, only for half your questions to be ignored and the other half answered in a brusque, unhelpful rush?

It’s all very well blaming your e-disillusionment on your stupid, rude clients, but I’m sorry to say that you’re probably part of the problem too. After all, an email conversation needs at least two people… unless you’ve been emailing yourself, in which case there’s something wrong and you probably need help.

Turns out we could be stuck in a feedback loop of everyone annoying everyone else with their bad email habits. TED’s Chris Anderson calls this the Email Spiral. I call it the Email Spiral of Doom. Why? Because drama.

The main problem, according to Chris, is that an email will invariably take more time to read than it did to write. Processing an email is more than just reading. You have to a) scan your inbox, b) decide which messages to open, c) open them, d) read them e) decide how to respond f) respond (which may well involve writing an email of similar length back) and finally, g) get back into the flow of your other work.

The result is that even a two-sentence email that is simply opened, read and deleted can take a full minute of your available cognitive time. With the ever-increasing barrage of mail that we’re experiencing today, it’s easy to see how this can quickly add up to be a massive time drain.

In a bid to solve the problem, Chris came up with a proposed 10-rule Email Charter to help us all drag ourselves out of the Email Spiral’s tedious grip. His suggestions include:

  • Respect recipient’s time

  • Agree that short replies are not rude, but useful

  • Increase clarity

  • Ditch open-ended questions

  • Be careful not to add too many ccs

  • Keep threads short

  • Cut back on attachments

  • Use EOM (end of message) in the subject line when a message is very short and NNTR (no need to reply) when – you guessed it – no reply is required

Simply put, if we all spent less time emailing, we’d all get less email. The French are certainly in favour of this point. Known for placing a high value on their leisure time, our cousins across the channel recently passed a law banning out of work emails.

Pigs will fly before the mega pro-business Tories consider something like this, but you can still make a difference by following the charter and encouraging your friends, colleagues and clients to do the same.

Photo by sagesolar.