Each day billions of e-mail messages zap across the Internet. If it seems that most of them make their way to your Inbox, you're not alone. “Overwhelmed” is how many people feel about this electronic communication. The bad news is that it will only get worse as the popularity of e-mail increases. The good news is that you can avoid drowning in a sea of messages by following some simple steps.
1. Establish separate business and personal accounts.
Keep your personal and professional lives separate, especially since employers in many countries can legally review messages on company mail servers. Do you really want your boss reading those off-color jokes? Having a separate personal account also means you aren't dealing with personal business on company time.
2. Develop a routine.
Answer your e-mail at set times during the day – perhaps the first thing in the morning, then mid-afternoon. This prevents incoming mail from interrupting other things you may be doing.
One popular routine is called the inbox zero strategies, and you may want to consider implementing it.
3. Set up your e-mail software for rapid review.
With e-mail programs such as Microsoft Outlook, you can customize the multi-pane display for quick viewing. Ideally, you want to see who the sender is, the subject and be able to read the first few lines of the message. That way you don't have to open every message to discern its content.
4. Scan new messages and delete spam immediately.
Junk e-mail has become a fact of electronic life, so turn them to your advantage. Quickly review the message subject line and scan a line or two to identify spam. Now use the Delete key. Weeding out spam reduces your Inbox by half or more, providing a psychological boost when you only have fifty messages to deal with, instead of one hundred!
If you receive a lot of marketing newsletters and subscribe to a lot of mailing lists, consider unsubscribing from some or most of these. Most of us only read a handful of the newsletters we receive. Unsubscribe from all of the rest.
5. Use filtering.
E-mail may be instant communication, but that doesn't mean you must reply instantly. Take time to consider your response. A good rule of thumb is to reply within 24 hours.
To further reduce the volume of mail, use filtering tools built into your e-mail program. They let you block messages sent from certain addresses, an excellent way to reduce spam. You can also automatically route messages from certain addresses into folders you set up. For instance, if you belong to a discussion group, messages will go directly into that folder, instead of your Inbox.
6. Organize messages into folders.
Create a series of folders to categorize your e-mail, using action items (pending, review etc.) and subjects (travel, newsletters, etc.). After you receive messages, file them away for later action and reference. Messages remaining in your Inbox are those requiring immediate action. Reply, then file or delete them.
7. Write short responses.
Everyone is pressed for time, so keep replies brief and to the point. E-mail has developed its own shorthand that doesn't require the formal prose of a letter. While shorthand isn't appropriate for all forms of e-mail, it's fine for informal personal messages.
An entire Internet subculture has grown up around the need to write shorter emails. So there's a lot of grassroots support for this strategy.
8. Prepare boilerplate responses.
If you're in a customer service position at work, you may find that you are often asked the same questions. To save time and avoid retyping the answers, just cut-and-paste a prepared reply. You can then tailor it as required.
Manage Your E-mail
Now that e-mail has become an indispensable communication tool, it becomes increasingly important to manage the flood of messages.
Most e-mail programs let you create folders to file your messages.
- You can usually drag a message from the Inbox or Sent mailbox to another folder.
- Some e-mail programs automatically file a message in a folder you specify or discard it when it's received. They use certain criteria, such as who it's from or a specified word in the subject line. These criteria are called e-mail filters if they discard, or actions if they file.
- When you delete a message, it is typically moved to your Trash or Deleted Mail folder. The message still exists, however. Delete all the files from the Trash periodically to clean up your computer.
If you’re new to e-mail, it may seem easy to manage your inbox right now. But before long, unless you begin organizing your messages early, it will inevitably get out of control. If it’s already out of control, don’t worry. Getting organized isn’t as hard as you think.
Reliability of E-Mail
E-mail is one of the fastest ways to communicate, but there are times when e-mail communications can be delayed or blocked altogether.
- E-mail reaches the recipient most of the time, but delivery is not guaranteed. Sometimes spam filtering software may block a message or direct it to the recipient's Junk Mail folder.
- If the message doesn't reach its destination the first time, the mail server sends it again.
- If the e-mail address is misspelled, it will not be delivered. This is done to prevent your message from winding up in the wrong mailbox.
- If the message is not delivered, you usually receive a message explaining the problem. You can correct the problem–typically an incorrect e-mail address–and resend it.
- If you are using a mobile device to send e-mail, messages may be delayed if your device can’t get a strong enough internet connection. In these cases, your e-mail program will periodically check for a reliable signal and send the message as soon as it can.
If you continue to experience problems, there may be an issue with the recipient’s mail server. In that case, you have a couple of options. You could wait and send your message in a few hours or even the next day. Or, if the person you are e-mailing has another e-mail address, you could try sending your message to that one. If neither of these steps works, it may be time to call.
Deciphering Error Messages
From time to time, an e-mail message may get returned to you, undelivered. If that happens, the message you receive from your domain server will most likely contain a brief explanation:
- User unknown: The message arrived at the mail server, but the server couldn't find the recipient. Check the username part of the e-mail address for errors and try sending the message again. Also, double check the domain name to ensure that you are sending it to the right organization.
- Host unknown: Your mail server could not find out the server's computer address based on the domain name. Check the domain name in the e-mail address for errors and try again.
- Message hasn't been delivered but will try again. Your mail server failed to deliver the message but will continue to resend it. This error message indicates a temporary communications problem that may clear up by itself. For example, this message is generated when the recipient's mail server is not functioning or is disconnected from the Internet.
- Unable to connect successfully to the destination mail server. This message usually follows the “will try again” error above. After two or more unsuccessful attempts, your mail server will no longer try resending the message.
Along with the above message (or something similar), the body of the error e-mail you will usually provide some additional information about the problem. For instance, if your e-mail was sent to multiple people, the error message will list which address it was unable to deliver the message to, so you don’t have to resend the message to everyone.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is there a way to keep my message out of someone’s junk mail folder?
The best way to avoid someone’s junk mail folder is for them to add your e-mail address to their contacts list. Unfortunately, this will only keep you out of their mail program’s junk folder. If their domain server runs its own junk mail filter, it’s possible your message could still wind up being rejected or put in a junk folder.
How many times will my mail server try to resend a message before giving up?
This will depend on the response it is getting back from the destination mail server and your specific mail server’s policy. If the destination mail server says the e-mail address does not exist, your server won’t try again. If the address does exist but is currently undeliverable, some servers will continue trying until the message is successfully delivered. Others will only try for a set number of times before sending you an undeliverable message. Make sure to read any messages sent by your mail server, as they will let you know whether or not it is going to try delivering your message again.
If the message isn’t delivered, do I need to retype the entire message from memory?
Definitely not! In some cases, when your mail server sends you an “Undeliverable Message” response, it will include the contents of your original e-mail. If it does, you can simply copy your communication from there and paste it into a new e-mail. Often times, it won’t include the original text, or it will be in a format that doesn’t work well for copying. Don’t worry. Whether you’re using your computer, your phone, or a web-based e-mail program, every message you send should be saved in a “Sent” folder. Open your Sent folder and locate your original message. You can use the Forward command to resend the message, or open it up, copy the text, and paste it into a brand new e-mail.
Will the error message always say the same thing?
Some mail servers will utilize slightly different language, but the purpose of the message will be the same. For instance, instead of saying your mail server “will try again,” the message may say the message “has been delayed.” It means the same thing. Instead of “host unknown” or “user unknown”, you may simply get a “delivery failure” notice. In this case, double-check the entire e-mail address for errors.
What should I do if I don’t see any mistakes with the e-mail address?
It’s possible that the recipient’s mail server is experiencing technical issues or is offline. If this is the case, trying to send the message again in a few hours may solve the problem. However, don’t assume this is the case. Instead, verify the address you have. A good way to do this is to check your inbox. If you have an old message from the person you’re trying to e-mail, you can use it to ensure you have their address correct. Open that old e-mail and hit reply. This way, the address is entered for you, so there’s no chance you can miss-type it. Delete the old message and paste in the new message you were trying to send.
How many times should I try to resend a message before quitting?
If your message is being returned due to a technical issue, it could take several hours for the issue to be resolved. If the message is not critical, go ahead and retry periodically throughout the day. If it’s still not sending after 24 hours, it probably never will. If the message is urgent, don’t keep trying. Find a better way to contact the recipient, because there’s no telling how long a technical issue will take to be resolved.
Why do I need to file messages?
You don’t need to file messages, but it can be very helpful if you ever need to find a message later. For instance, if you are using e-mail for work, you could create folders for each project you’re working on. Then you can place every message regarding that project in there, much like you would file papers for specific projects in a filing cabinet. For personal e-mail, folders can be used to organize different newsletters you subscribe to, messages from family, or any other type of e-mails you may want to look at in the future.
How do I create new folders?
Some e-mail programs, particularly web-based e-mail clients, have a button labeled “new folder” or “new label.” Clicking that will pop up a new folder dialogue box, allowing you to name the new folder and specify where you want it placed. With other programs, right-clicking on your inbox label should give you the “New Folder” option. Once you have created the new folder, you can move it anywhere you like, just as you can move files around on your computer.
How do I create filters and actions?
These may be called Filters or Rules, depending on your e-mail client. In some cases, if you right-click on a message, you will see an option for adding a new rule. With other programs, you will need to go to the options or settings menu and find the Filter or Rule tab. After you click the Add New Rule or Create a New Filter button, the program will guide you through a series of questions to determine which messages should be moved and where to move them.
How can I add every message from a particular person to a new folder?
The easiest way to do this is to sort your inbox by sender. Most e-mail clients will allow you to select how you want your messages arranged. In some cases, you can sort your messages by a specific category by clicking on the labels at the top of your message window. Sort your messages by “Sender” or “From.” Now every message you received from a specific e-mail address should be grouped together, so you can easily select them and drag them all to the new folder at the same time.