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The Problem

The relentless growth of in-box overload is being driven by a surprising fact:

The average time taken to respond to an email is greater, in aggregate, than the time it took to create.

This is counter-intuitive because it's quicker to read than to write. So you might assume a typical email takes a few minutes to write, but only a few seconds to read. However, five other factors are outweighing this.

- The act of processing an email consists of much more than just reading. There is a) scanning an in-box, b) deciding which ones to open, c) opening them, d) reading them e) deciding how to respond f) responding -- which may well involve writing an email of similar length back g) getting back into the flow of your other work. So the arrival of even a two-sentence email that is simply opened, read and deleted can take a full minute of your available cognitive time.

- Many emails contain open-ended questions that can't rapidly be responded to. "What's your opinion on all this?" "How should I move forward?" Easy to ask, hard to answer.

- Many emails are sent to multiple recipients. It takes no time to add another cc, but each additional recipient multiplies the total response time demanded.

- Many emails contain additional text that has been copied and pasted from other documents or a lengthy thread that is simply being re-forwarded.

- Many emails contain links to web pages or videos. Easy to add a link. But it may take minutes to view it.

Now consider that the amount of time people are spending on line is increasing. It is, after all, a seductive place to hang out. As social creatures, it's the most natural thing in the world to want to use that time to reach out to others. What is more the range of 'distractions' online is growing every year. And it's easy (and often wonderful) to share them with our friends and colleagues. Just copy a link, paste and send... and boom, the world's cognitive capacity takes another hit!

The result of all this is a deadly upward spiral. Every hour you spend writing and sending email is probably consuming more than an hour of the combined attention of your various recipients. So without meaning to, we're all creating an ever growing problem for each other.

An email inbox has been aptly described as the to-do list that anyone in the world can add an item to. If you're not careful, it can gobble up most of your working week. Then you've become a reactive robot responding to other people's requests, instead of a proactive agent addressing your own true priorities. This is not good.

This phenomenon can be thought of as a potent modern tragedy of the commons. The commons in question here is the world's pool of attention. Email makes it just a little too easy to grab a piece of that attention. The unintended consequence of all those little acts of grabbing, is a giant rats nest of voracious demands on our time, energy and sanity.

How might the Charter solve this? See the solution.