I fell in love with email in 1983. I was a computer-savvy educator and children’s librarian teaching teachers about the new technologies available to them. Email came into my life, offering immediate gratification: no stamp, no trip to the post office, no phone tag, no long messages. Questions were answered quickly. Personal exchanges often felt as intimate as a written letter or a phone call, but were immediate and more frequent.
Years later, in 1990, I was working at Apple, and I missed a weekend call to my mother. She chided me: “Your tombstone isn’t going to say ‘Returned every email, returned every call.’ It could say, ‘Loving daughter of…” My mother was thinking about my tombstone and I was thinking about email.
Then, between 2000-2002, when I was working for Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, it wasn’t unusual for my inbox to have a thousand new emails a day. Everybody and their dog seemed to be on email. I filed, filtered, deleted, and delegated. And I called my mother on the weekends.
When I left Microsoft, my emails tapered off to 100-200 a day. In 2006, met Bruno, a mid-level manager in Silicon Valley. When I sent him an email, a message bounced back into my inbox:
“My email response time is 1-2 weeks.
If you need immediate assistance, you can I.M. me between 9:30 a.m. and 6:30 pm PST or call me between 9:30 -11 a.m. PST.
For issues related to contracts, please contact…”
Bruno, GenY and twenty-something, named three communication tools: email, I.M., and the telephone. He spelled out his response habits. That got my attention.
Why don’t we all take a cue from Bruno? We could start a social movement. We can take back the inbox. I’ll call it eFree.
In the “signature” at the end of an email, people often include name, contact information, a quote, or a legal disclaimer. Let’s modify that. How about cutting and pasting the eFree signature below into your email signature? By adding it, you’re communicating your preferences, just like Bruno did. You’re letting the recipient know how to communicate with you.
1. Reply all is usually a bad idea.
2. If you’re cc’d, there’s no need to reply.
3. A short, thoughtful email gets a quicker response. Long emails are read last.
4. If this issue cannot be resolved in 3 emails, consider scheduling a call or a meeting.
5. Thank you. Always lovely. Sometimes not necessary.
Are you ready to take back the inbox? Is there a funnier or more compelling way to say this? Radar readers have great suggestions, so thank you in advance!
(special thanks to Michael Tubach, an attorney with O’Melveny & Myers LLP, who helped craft the eFree principles)
This post originally appeared on BusinessWeek.com.