11/21/2011 03:26 pm ET | Updated Jan 17, 2012

Email Is Too Cheap

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

Email is too cheap to send. That, in a nutshell, is why we are all drowning in it. It costs you nothing to add one more person as a recipient.

And it's incredibly tough to break the cycle. If everyone else gets copied on everything, you don't want to be the one left out. Nor do you want to be the spoiler and not copy everyone else on everything you send. You produce important work, after all, and others ought to know.

The creators of have caught on to this and call it a modern example of the Tragedy of the Commons. Adding one more cow onto that pasture, hitting send on that one more email, is almost free to us. But we are creating costs for everyone else.

What to do?

You could use the direct, command-and-control approach. Gmail allows you to send mail to no more than 500 recipients at a time. If you send more than two or three of these large messages, Google will cut you off email entirely for a day. That, of course, is a crude way to go about it. Why not just create another free Gmail account and keep on spamming? And it's not like most mail originates from messages with 500+ recipients. It's the constant barrage of messages that gets to us.

The classic economic approach would point in another direction: charge for or limit email. Either literally charge for each message sent, or limit the overall number of messages sent in any given day. Every internet user gets a share in that total. If you have unused email allowances left over, sell them to those who want them. Soon enough, those who want to send will. Those who can live without email will keep the change. People will find innovative ways to communicate. It's the most flexible approach imaginable. Cap and trade 101.

Then there's the Elinor Ostrom-style system. It's not like we are all sending email to everyone else on the planet. We are largely communicating in defined tribes. Often, most of our mail comes from colleagues who sit just down the hall. Individuals can't do much, but we could try to change the culture of the organization. Decree that everyone shall respond to every (internal) message within 24 hours during the workweek and that no email shall have more than three recipients, and watch the number of email drop and productivity rise.

In any case, it'll take collective action to make a difference. If you act alone, you will be the loner. It might be fun to have an out-of-office reply that says you are only checking email once a day, but you've just created even more email for everyone else. And you are the one who won't respond to your boss's boss before someone else does. Then again, you would keep your sanity.