Oct 31 2006

5 Tips for Managing E-Mail

Is an overflowing inbox a constant stress in life? Here are five tips to help you maintain a manageable amount of mail and save time.

"If your e-mail is more than one screen long,” declares Peggy Duncan, author of Conquer Email Overload with Better Habits, Etiquette, and Outlook Tips and Tricks, “you’re not using it for its intended purpose—as a temporary repository of messages.”

Geof Huth, manager of the Records Advisory Services for the New York State Archives, agrees. “In most school systems, individual users are maintaining thousands of e-mails at any one time. This means they are not identifying, deleting or transferring messages out of their inboxes. What's more, these overburdened e-mail systems are slowing down the entire system and causing delays in retrieving information.”

Overflowing inboxes are also a terrific time waster. “If you can't find something you're looking for,” Duncan quips, “you're just taking up time that you could be using more productively elsewhere.”

Duncan, Huth and other e-mail experts agree that most people don't use their inboxes effectively, and they offer the following time-saving recommendations:

1. Get organized. Clean out your inbox. Eliminate messages you don't need, and set up folders and subfolders to organize your remaining e-mail. “Make sure there's logic in how you store things,” Duncan advises.

2. Consider using e-mail client software. If you have a busy schedule, e-mail software, such as Microsoft Outlook or Eudora, might be the right solution. These feature-rich programs allow you to manage and integrate your e-mail, calendar, tasks, contacts and other important information.

3. Set up a daily meeting with your inbox. Rather than attempting to read and respond to each and every e-mail as it comes in, set up a time each day to review and take action on the items in your inbox.

“Your goal should be to always see the last message in your inbox without scrolling,” Duncan declares.

4. Never leave an e-mail message in your inbox. When you open your inbox, go through and delete as many messages as you can without opening them. Then, and only then, go through the rest of your messages. As you read each, decide what action you need to take—to read and discard, to act on it, to refer it to someone else or to file it in a folder or subfolder. “Make sure you identify any messages that are records and file them in their appropriate places,” Huth advises.

5. Save and respond to questions that you get frequently.Some client software allows you to create a body of text that can be attached to your e-mail response, such as driving directions. Creating a collection of commonly used responses can save you time and effort. In Outlook, for example, you can save these responses as signatures and insert them into your message as needed.

Managing your e-mail effectively also reduces tension and increases job satisfaction. According to Duncan, “People often don't realize the stress caused by an overflowing inbox. Every time they open their inbox, they see more unfinished work, more demands on their time, and more missed deadlines and broken promises, all of which leads to stress and lower morale.”

Ralph Hammock is a Stamford, Conn.-based freelance writer.