The need to manage our e-mail has spurred a number of authors to write entire books on the subject. If books aren’t enough, e-mail management experts are available to offer further training through their seminar programs and consulting services. And for the truly needy, there are software programs available to help us prioritize, categorize, sort, and file our e-mail into helpful folders, calendars, and lists. For most of us, though, perhaps this is overkill. A few key management practices would probably be enough to enable us to cope with our e-mail. So what are the experts recommending? Here’s a sampling of their advice:

  1. Turn off any mechanisms that let you know the instant you have received e-mail. This is disruptive and, for most people, unnecessary. In fact, some experts view checking e-mail repeatedly throughout the day as a form of procrastination.1,2,3
  2. Select one or two times a day to read and answer (or delete, delegate, or file) your e-mail. This will enable you to focus on other tasks without interruption and thus will increase productivity.1
  3. Deal with each e-mail only once, especially if doing so will take two minutes or less. Avoid adopting the common habit of reading all your e-mails and then going back and answering them. Since this practice typically necessitates re-reading each e-mail, it wastes time. It is also a common cause of e-mails getting forgotten and left unanswered.1,4
  4. Don’t check your e-mail first thing in the morning. If possible, devote the first hour or two of your day to accomplishing tasks you know you want to complete.4
  5. Unsubscribe from any mailing lists whose e-mails you find yourself deleting. It takes time to evaluate and delete these e-mails again and again. If you’re not opening these e-mails, you’ve already made the decision that the information they provide is not particularly useful to you.5
  6. Don’t use e-mail to deal with complicated issues. “As a general rule of thumb, if a response to an e-mail needs to be longer than the e-mail itself, e-mail is not the right medium,” suggests Ted Demopoulos, author of several books about Internet communication issues. He recommends either calling the e-mailer to discuss the matter or replying via e-mail with a request for a telephone or face-to-face conversation.2,6
  7. Preview your messages. If your software offers an e-mail previewing option, use it. This will enable you to see the first line or two of each e-mail, which is often enough information to let you know you can delete an e-mail without opening it.7
  8. Use multiple e-mail addresses. At the very least, most experts recommend having one personal e-mail address and one business address. Some suggest creating a very private e-mail address for use only by family and close friends. Others suggest also having a separate e-mail address for e-Newsletters and another for purchases, drawings, registrations, etc. This helps organize and prioritize your e-mail, but it also creates multiple addresses you’ll need to check from time to time, though probably not each day.5,6,8
  9. Reduce the number of e-mails you send. The more you send, the more you receive, so use the “reply to all” option judiciously and refrain from forwarding those jokes and inspirational stories that you yourself rarely have time to read.4,12
  10. Train your staff in helpful e-mail practices. For instance, ask them to use explanatory subject lines (time/date for budget meeting?) rather than vague ones (meeting). If you are receiving a lot of e-mails about matters in which you are not directly involved and your input is not required, explain to your staff and volunteers the instances in which it is appropriate to involve you and those in which it is not. (Experts say many workers and volunteers have begun copying multiple parties on their e-mails as a way to protect themselves from criticism about future actions.) Also, recommend that staff address separate topics in separate e-mails, particularly when some topics are controversial (a potential firing, for instance) and others are mundane (the upcoming church picnic). Likewise, when receiving e-mails about multiple issues, some of which can be addressed immediately and others that can’t, reply in separate e-mails so that action on some issues isn’t encumbered by delayed decisions on others.9,10
  11. For e-mails that you’ve opened but have not yet addressed, use some system to ensure that you will remember to follow up. Among the various systems experts recommend are flagging these messages for follow-up, saving them as new, and filing them in a “to do” or “action needed” folder, though this last approach is not recommended for those prone to forgetting about anything that is no longer in their inboxes.11
  12. Mark spam as spam (without opening it, ideally) so that your spam filters can keep this sender from cluttering your inbox with additional mailings. Do not “unsubscribe” to spam. You never subscribed in the first place, and opening the e-mail to unsubscribe will merely tip off the spammer that your e-mail address is a valid one.12
  13. If you have already reached e-mail overload, experts reluctantly recommend what has become known as “declaring e-mail bankruptcy,” which was popularized by Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Stanford Law School, who in 2004 found himself with nearly a thousand e-mails saved in his “Reply To” folder, many from people he had never met. Realizing he would never be able to reply to them all, Lessig sent everyone in the folder a message notifying them that he was, regretfully, “declaring e-mail bankruptcy” and that he would not be able to reply. He would, however, accept new e-mails from those who wished to send him one. Only about 30 people did so, allowing Lessig to catch up on his e-mail correspondence in about a week. Experts caution that this approach should be viewed only as a last resort, and warn that there is likely to be fallout from it.11,13 The good news is that tips 1 through 12 should help keep you out of e-mail “bankruptcy,” so pick the ones that appeal and start applying them today.



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