How many hours a day do you spend reading and answering your email? More than you'd care to admit? Email is a great tool that enables efficient communication — and it can be fun, too. However, those electronic messages can also be a big time drain and a source of clutter.
Some email programs have a built–in junk email management feature that routinely puts unsolicited email into a bulk mail folder. The bulk messages are purged after a period of time if you don't delete them on your own. Many email providers also allow you to "block" specific email addresses from your inbox. When email arrives from one of the addresses on your blocked list, it is automatically deleted.
Many email programs also have a filtering capability that allows you to route messages from specific recipients, or messages containing certain key words, into folders. For organizational purposes, it's a good idea: you can have all messages regarding a certain project, for example, put in a folder for future reference.
According to Ronni Eisenberg and Kate Kelly, authors of Organize Your Home Office!, "by using a filter that puts into a trash folder all e–mail that has certain word strings, you can then scan only the headers. If that doesn't reduce your e–mail, you'll need to have it scan the full text of the message. Start out with word strings like 'money–making opportunity,' 'make money,' '90 days,' '!!!,"...and 'dear friend.'" Check your trash folder periodically before emptying it permanently to ensure that the filter has not sorted something that you want to read.
To stop unsolicited email, Jane Yoos, a professional organizer and the founder of Let It Go, Inc., advises signing up for the Direct Marketing Association's (DMA's) e–Mail Preference Service. When consumers sign up for this free service, their email addresses are put on a "do not send" list that is distributed to all DMA members.
Instead of reading each email in the order in which it was sent, view the entire list of incoming messages to identify those that can be deleted immediately. Eisenberg and Kelly, in their book, Organize Your Office!, recommend "using the sender or the subject line to make a judgment." Always answer the more important messages immediately and save the rest for later.
"Ruthlessly delete what you know you're not going to need later," says Yoos. Discarding unneeded messages now saves time and future aggravation, not to mention valuable space on your server or hard disk. Only a small percentage of your messages will contain information that you'll need to hold on to for a long time.
Try to keep the number of messages in your inbox low — use the inbox for unread messages or messages that you're working on and will reply to shortly. For those messages that you'll need to save for future reference, Yoos advocates using folders arranged by topic. Sort through your mail folders once a month to see if there is anything that you can put in the trash. Remember: the less you keep, the easier it will be to find the things that you're looking for.
If you go for too long without checking your email, you may have so much correspondence waiting for you that you'll be overwhelmed. Barbara Hemphill, the author of Taming the Paper Tiger, suggests reading your email a few times a day, at designated intervals. Hemphill writes, "When I'm in the office, I generally check my e–mail first thing in the morning, at midday and before I leave the office. When I travel, I often only check at the end of each day."
When sending email, keep it brief and clearly organized. "Concise e–mail messages generally get concise answers in return, so don't be wordy," write Eisenberg and Kelly in Organize Your Home Office!. "Your most important information should be in the first paragraph with the less important below. Most e–mail messages should be only three paragraphs or less."
Consider setting up different email accounts to keep your business and personal messages separate, advise Eisenberg and Kelly. You'll have at least one business account, of course, but you may also want a personal account for correspondence with friends and family, an account to use for a leisure or volunteer activity, and maybe an account for job searching activities. Numerous free email services are available; Yahoo!, Hotmail, and Excite are three popular ones.
Compartmentalizing your email in this manner will allow you to deal with it efficiently. This is also wise if your company has a "business only" technology policy that discourages using your company email account for personal use.
If you're going to be away from your computer for more than a day or two, turn on the automatic response feature to alert those who send you email that you'll respond when you return. If someone sends you an urgent message while you're away and doesn't get any response, they might send a follow–up message, or be annoyed or confused. When you do return to your office, respond to your urgent messages right away, and be sure to turn off the automatic response feature.