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Trial, error can beat e-mail overload

Coach's Corner--August 24, 2009

Thanks, readers: E-mail presents challenges, but you've provided plenty of tips about managing it.

Filters and folders are key to successful e-mail management for one reader, who writes: "I receive hundreds of e-mails each day. I created 30-40 different filters to move incoming messages to folders. This helps tremendously in keeping e-mail organized."

This approach created more problems than it solved for another reader. "I used to spend hours or days sorting my inbox into folders, trying to keep things separated neatly. Soon I realized I was spending more time sorting than I was saving by having things sorted." One size doesn't fit all. See if folders work for you, but remember it's not a magic bullet.

Others set a filter to play a specific sound when e-mail from important people is received and use the search feature to find e-mails in their inbox, rather than using folders.

This isn't just an individual problem, it's a systemwide one. To address root causes, work within your team to develop subject line codes that quickly communicate whether an e-mail requires action or is just FYI. Then use categories of "read once and delete, action now or action later" to keep them from piling up.

Separating work and personal e-mails helps keep the work inbox clean. It also has other benefits, a reader says: "This is good for legal reasons, since most businesses can scan/read e-mails on their servers, and practical reasons if you change jobs, and efficiency reasons if you keep getting distracted at work by off-color forwards from your brother-in-law."

To cut down on volume, review newsletters and other junk mail you receive. If you aren't reading them, unsubscribe. Be careful, though: This works only with legitimate subscriptions. Trying to unsubscribe to spam about prescription drugs, adult services or home-based businesses increases the volume by confirming that the spammers have hit a "live" address.

Finally, for one reader, not all e-mail applications are created equal. For him, Thunderbird stands well above the others because its spam filters have reduced the junk mail he receives.

Want to be more effective in how you write, read and manage e-mail? Have a look at the Harvard Business School article "Tips for Mastering E-mail Overload" (link in the resources box). A few highlights:

• When writing an e-mail, summarize in the subject line, give the full context at the start of your message and let each person you copy know why they should care. Use their examples of good and bad e-mails to improve your own e-mails.

• Try to include only one topic in an e-mail, especially if some topics require routine action and others may be controversial.

• Be concise in your responses. If you're the boss, get away from an instant response model, setting specific times when you'll respond. Then set similar expectations for your team to help them get out from under e-mail, too.

To manage e-mail successfully, make a plan, and then keep at it. Try new things until you find an approach that works for you; you'll lower your stress and increase your productivity.

Liz Reyer, President RCC - Posted August 24, 2009
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  [below viewing threshold (-68.5), show comment]Liz (August 24, 2009 8:01:14 AM)