E-mail onslaught

Deluged with data? There's a way out

Posted: Sunday, February 25, 2007

How many messages are in your e-mail inbox? Not sure? Go check. We'll wait. Chances are, you're one of the many Americans with a surplus of messages that have accumulated over the years. Your e-mail program is a virtual graveyard for unanswered messages and forgotten appointments.

To combat this growing problem, Mike Song, author of "Hamster Revolution: How to Manage Your E-mail Before It Manages You" (Berrett-Koehler, $19.95) says taking advantage of all your e-mail program's features can help cut down on disruptions during the day.

"Certain high-volume users can't quite help the amount of e-mail they get, but diverting e-mail by creating folder rules that route lower priority e-mail to pre-designated folders will help minimize distractions," he explains. "For example, if I don't want to be interrupted by e-mails from some organization that I belong to, I can set it to where those e-mails will automatically re-route into a folder that I've designated for that."

Another disturbance-buster is eliminating sounds or notifications that occur when a new e-mail has arrived. Often, these features will avert your attention away from the project you are working on, thus taking more time for you to complete it.

"Think about how you're storing your e-mail," adds Song. "Ninety-five percent of people in our survey said they wanted to develop a better system for organizing their e-mail. This is causing a lot of stress among workers who sometimes have anywhere from 500 to 2,000 or 3,000 e-mails in their inbox at one time."

Simple steps

Taking a few minutes out of your day to organize your e-mail, create folders and take advantage of all the options your e-mail program offers to personalize your system will pay off in the long run. One such method is limiting the e-mail you receive in the first place.

"We get much more e-mail than we can actually process," he says. "This is fed by mass e-mails that are sent to numerous people at once, which makes us feel a tremendous need to chime in. We try to have group discussions in a somewhat disjointed environment - cc'ing everyone, hitting the reply-all button with our own comments."

While the obvious solution to avoiding e-mail overload is to simply stop sending as many, making a phone call in lieu of a quick note can often become a time-consuming game of phone tag. Instead, Song says, agree on a date and time of contact for your next meeting. This will eliminate missed messages and phone calls while expediting the communication process.

Another inbox-clogging culprit is unclear or overly wordy messages. An e-mail that is too succinct to the point of vagueness just adds to the cyber traffic with follow-up e-mails asking for clarification, while long-winded messages typically get passed over with the intention of returning to it when you have more time.

"When writing an e-mail, you can save yourself and the recipient some time if you describe what you're going to say right off the bat," Song says. "People often scan e-mails but don't read them. So bullet your background points or at least chunk them into bullets or numbers to make it easier to read."

Appropriately speaking

Song also advises workers to be cognizant of how the tone of your e-mail may be perceived. If you're a very to-the-point person, open the e-mail with a warm greeting, such as, "Great work today!" This automatically let's the reader know that the message is not meant to be disrespectful or viewed in a curt manner.

Additionally, Song cautions workers not to be a victim of e-mail amnesia. This refers to bosses or colleagues who write rude or outright mean e-mails, but are friendly in person, as if the message was never sent. This is one of the instances where face-to-face communication is necessary, says Song.

It's easy to use e-mail every time you communicate with someone - whether it's a co-worker or a spouse - however, despite the ease of corresponding this way, nothing takes the place of one-on-one conversations.

Avoiding e-mail overload can be easy if you follow a few rules:

1. Anything that can be taken care of in two minutes or less should be done right away.

2. Divert any low-priority messages, such as weekly newsletters or listservs, into its own designated folder.

3. Do it or delegate it. Similar to the first tip, either take action right away, file the e-mail into its appropriate folder, or delegate the task.

4. Define the optimal number of messages you want in your inbox at one time.

5. Color-code certain recipients so those e-mails are read first.

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