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 strategy, 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 boiler plate 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.