Software

Get IT Done: Handling that ocean of e-mail you receive every day

E-mail management tactics that can help you stay more focused on e-mails that matter


You’ve got mail—and lots of it. So much e-mail is stacked in your inbox, there are probably many days when dealing with it dominates your workday.

In fact, it’s likely that when you use your PC, you spend most of your time reading or responding to e-mail. Forrester Research found that 88% of Internet users rank e-mail as their most frequent online activity.

IT professionals might argue that their e-mail headaches are even bigger than typical managers in corporate America. Since you often communicate with people who are more computer-savvy, e-mail overload could be an even greater occupational hazard for you.

Managing your e-mail means more than just hitting [Delete]. It’s a time-management issue that requires some know-how and discipline.
In this article, you’ll learn effective time-management techniques for dealing with large volumes of e-mail. The second article will look into the problem of eliminating e-mail too quickly—and how you can make sure that when you send important e-mail, it gets the attention it deserves.
How much is too much?
According to time-management researcher Dr. Donald Wetmore, it's not surprising that the volume of e-mails exceeded the volume of first class mailings within the U.S. Post Office in 1998. “It’s so easy to click a button and send anything all over the world,” said Wetmore, founder of the Productivity Institute in Shelton, CT. Wetmore suggests that you learn how to manage large volumes of e-mail so that it doesn’t become overwhelming.

“You have to go through a learning process just like you did with voice mail.”

Wetmore found that the average businessperson receives approximately 80 e-mails a day. Some people actually equate e-mail volume with their professional status.

The number of e-mails can even become “bragging rights,” according to Adam Merrill, director of Online Learning Services for The Franklin Covey Institute in Salt Lake City. He often hears people boast about the high number of e-mails in their inbox but says, "It would be nice to hear the opposite.”

Return to sender
You should view handling your e-mail as a time-management skill that you need to master in order to improve. Here’s a simple solution—don’t allow incoming mail that’s not needed for your job.

“Managing your [non-job-related] e-mail can reduce your load by…60 to 80 percent,” said Merrill.

Merrill averages about 30 e-mails a day. He considers that low volume an accomplishment. He used to receive much more mail, before he learned how to eliminate unnecessary incoming correspondence. He recommends the following steps:
  • Determine the important tasks in your job.
  • Use your mail system effectively and regularly to eliminate incoming items that are not helpful. For example, you may receive several online newsletters. But if you’re always deleting them, consider ending your subscription.

Merrill also urges you to take the time to learn more about the capabilities of your e-mail system. For Microsoft Outlook, he recommends these e-mail management functions:
  • Move the e-mail into a folder and place a copy in your inbox.
  • To avoid confusion, create descriptive titles for your folders.
  • Flag messages after you read them to remind yourself of any necessary follow-ups.
  • Automatically delete messages you regard as “junk mail” by using the Rules Wizard.
  • Take advantage of the options that allow you to preview the first few lines of a message.
The founder and chief executive officer of Amazon.com Inc., Jeff Bezos, devotes a large portion of his workweek to wrestling e-mail. In a Feb. 4, 2000, article in the Wall Street Journal, Bezos said his e-mail time-management strategy is “to set aside some fraction of your time as your own. I use Tuesdays and Thursdays as my proactive days, when I try not to schedule meetings. I let the other three days of the workweek be completely scheduled.”
How to manage?
Wetmore receives about 250 e-mails a day, many from Internet users requesting copies of an article from his Web site. He sets aside one to two hours in the morning to go through his e-mail.

E-mail can create a sense of urgency, but most of the communications are not all that urgent. Wetmore allows the incoming messages to accumulate, checking his inbox only once or twice a day. His other recommendations include:
  • Unlisted addresses: It’s just like an unlisted telephone number that you share only with those to whom you want to give direct access. Wetmore says when he receives e-mail to this account, he knows “it’s a private conversation. It’s important to give this high priority.”
  • Quick responses: If it requires a quick response, respond to it and delete it.
  • Use the forward option: If it requires a response but it’s not the best use of your time, delegate it.
  • Schedule a response: If it is going to take any serious amount of time to respond (beyond a minute or two), schedule it for action in your calendar and either save it or print it out for future action.

Help your co-workers cope
Here’s another reason you’ll want to learn e-mail management—your IT department might be called upon to provide training for co-workers who need to learn this skill.

Some IT departments already offer this training to other employees. For example, at 3M, headquartered in St. Paul, MN, the IT department provides classes to the 3M community on using Lotus Notes and on efficient business writing.

S. Herzog, with 3M’s IT department, is a big fan of Lotus Notes. Like Outlook, Notes has a folder feature for grouping mail. Herzog also likes how Lotus purges the inbox every 90 days. “So we are definitely encouraged to use the folders to store what we need to keep,” said Herzog.

The e-mail that’s still to come…
E-mail has become a fundamental communications tool in virtually every profession. Its importance—and abundance—will likely increase in the coming years. Unified-messaging services can now dump e-mails, faxes, and voice mails into your inbox. Improvements in this already powerful technology mean that in the future, controlling the volume of messages you receive will become an even greater challenge.
Share your e-mail management tactics. How do you control your inbox? How does your e-mail volume compare to the "80 messages-per-day" average? Post a comment below or send us a note. We like receiving lots of e-mail—really, we do.

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