You've Got (Too Much) Mail

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Perhaps you've had this dream too. I arrive at work, start my computer and find an automatic out-of-office assistant displaying the following message on my screen and on every computer across the country:

"The endless stream of e-mails β€” and the expectation that people are constantly available to read them β€” is leading to incalculable inefficiency and impairing the quality of life. Accordingly, if you would like to reach me, please call."

The dream invariably leads to the urgent recognition that we must gain control over this burgeoning behemoth. In just a few years, e-mail has evolved from a convenient tool for communicating into a demanding, incessant time thief that has blurred boundaries between the workday and personal time.

The problem of e-mail overload has become so intrusive that the Washington Post recently wrote about the growing trend of declaring "e-mail bankruptcy" in order to assert freedom from responding to old e-mails. But for the majority of us who cannot truly opt-out of the e-mail world, there is a need to develop some reasoned expectations about the effective and controlled use of e-mail and to create a semblance of order in the unregulated universe where e-mail resides.

It is time to become aggressive about decreasing the trillions (yes, trillions) of e-mails sent annually. With no regulating body, and nothing but our own self-restraint to guide us, perhaps it is time to develop consensus around how we should control β€” rather than be controlled by β€” e-mail.

Following are six rules for reclaiming control over our digitally driven lives:

β€’ STOP THE PROLIFERATION of illiteracy. We know how busy everyone is, but there is a reason why grammar and punctuation were invented; they make the written word easier to read and aid the reader in determining meaning. Stop wasting other people's time by forcing them to discern where one sentence ends and another begins. What worked for e. e. cummings in his poetry does not translate into today's electronic communications.

β€’ IF YOU MUST forward nonessential e-mails, have the courtesy to delete the endless streams of "re: fw: fw:" that precede the text. It is a waste of the recipient's time to endlessly scroll down in search of an actual message. And the message is generally lost on BlackBerry users who give up rather than wait for the screen to continually be prompted to search "More."

β€’ DO NOT "reply all" unless you absolutely, positively must β€” and even then, check again to be sure it is necessary. Very rarely do others need to see your reply to a sender's inquiry, especially when so many group e-mails are simply announcements, scheduling inquiries or notices of some sort. Other people do not care that you have said "thank you" in response to the sender. Really.

Oh, and when composing a new message, write and proofread the message before you enter the address. This will help head off embarrassing premature e-mail transmissions.

β€’ DO NOT use e-mail to lessen your own burden by placing an unnecessary burden on someone else. Too frequently, emails are now used to escape tasks by leaving the follow-up burden to others. A prime example is the e-mail asking someone else to call you. In the old days β€” that is, two or three years ago β€” if you wanted to talk to someone on the phone, you would call him. Replacing telephone tag with e-mail tag is inefficient and annoying.

β€’ SIMPLIFY EFFORTS to schedule calls and meetings among multiple parties. The only thing more inefficient than the old way of scheduling meetings and conference calls via telephone is to use e-mail alone. A sender's e-mail listing preferred dates is generally followed by a steady stream of "reply all" responses that invariably are not responsive to each other. Moreover, the burden is then placed on the recipient to continually click back and forth between dates proposed in the email and one's calendar to check for availability. Recipients then often suggest new dates, with no offer to coordinate the numerous options. Even worse, however, is the request for a meeting that begins: "Please send me some available dates."

β€’ STOP INCORPORATING E-MAIL i nto your family life. You are not doing your children any favors if you cannot look up from your handheld device to watch their sporting events or violin solos. They know your head is not lowered because you are praying, and they also see how unengaged you are in their activities while sitting in the stands. Being present requires your physical and mental presence.

The bottom line is that e-mail should be a tool that serves us, rather than the form of slavery it has become. As we all experience the proliferation of e-mails overtaking us, we need to gain control and create a more ordered cyber-universe that evolves from a common ground of email etiquette.

We cannot start soon enough. So please, e-mail these recommendations to a friend. Just be sure to remove all the forwarding details.

Attorney Lauren Stiller Rikleen is the author of Ending the Gauntlet: Removing Barriers to Women's Success in the Law. Rikleen is a senior partner with Bowditch & Dewey, executive director of the Bowditch Institute for Women's Success and a former president of the Boston Bar Association. For more information, visit

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