We are said to be a nation of laws, but any desk jockey knows that's an illusion. Unbounded email, CrackBerry, and cell-phone communications have turned civil society into an anarchic, free-fire zone of ceaseless incoming, stealing our time and invading nights and weekends. The volume of electronic messaging keeps mounting—without rules, limits, or traffic lights.
A Day-Timers survey confirmed that instant-communications technology is making it harder, not easier, to get things done. The number of people who report feeling very productive has dropped from 83% in 1994 to just 51% today. It's hard to perform in a 24-7 distraction derby that constantly disrupts focus and feeds an epidemic of false urgency.
I know a New Jersey public relations exec, Jonathan Jaffe, who took his cell phone to Club Med and spent his vacation taking calls by the pool. To get Internet access, he drove 20 minutes to a library—where he invented a story about buying a local house to score privileges. He wound up visiting twice a day to check his inbox. "It was pathetic," he admits.
In the spirit of Madison and Jefferson, it's time to reclaim liberty, not to mention productivity, with some boundary setting and rules. It's time to redraw the line between work and home, and between legitimate office communications and junk, with an E-Tool Bill of Rights.
Article 1: There shall be no assumption of unlimited e-access simply because the tools allow it. Excessive messaging shall be considered electronic littering.
Article 2: The right of the people to be secure from unwarranted electronic work intrusions at home shall not be violated. Nights and weekends shall be considered unplugged zones.
Article 3: The people shall have the right to switch off email notification and other noisemakers and instead check messages at designated times to prevent attention deficit.
Article 4: There shall be no requirement of immediate response to messaging, unless urgency is determined.
Article 5: The time of the people shall be respected. Therefore, book-length thread emails, short acknowledgment notes ("Got it," etc.), and lame chain jokes shall not be allowed.
Article 6: Companies shall establish written policies to manage e-messaging.
Article 7: The people are not on vacation if they are still in contact with the office. There shall be no requirement while on holiday to carry pagers, or check email or voice mail.
Article 8: Any email longer than two paragraphs shall not be sent. Instead, time shall be saved by telephone contact.
Article 9: BlackBerry users shall be allowed to turn off incessant mail sound effects and shut down their devices at the end of the workday.
Article 10: E-contact-free zones/days shall be negotiated to improve performance and jump-start innovation. Fines shall be levied when anyone sends e-messages after 7 p.m.
Most of the e-chaos today is enabled by our limitless need to be wanted. The E-Tool Bill of Rights helps do what the founding fathers knew we had to: save us from ourselves.
Joe Robinson, a work-life coach and consultant for Work to Live, is author of "Work to Live: The Guide to Getting a Life."
A version of this article appeared in the December 2006/January 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.