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Take Charge Of That Inbox!

October 1, 2009
by Gwen Darling
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Right before I sat down to write this blog post, I deleted 5,893 email messages. And just in case you think I’m exaggerating, thanks to SnagIt, my favorite Web app of all time, here’s the proof:


5,893 emails? Am I one of those seemingly put together professionals on the outside but a scatter-brained disorganized slacker in real life? No (well, maybe on occasion, but this isn’t one of them). The emails I deleted this morning are from my personal Yahoo account, which I set up after learning about email overload the hard way. Then I got to thinking, if I'm overwhelmed with email, I'll bet you are, too, so maybe there's some benefit to sharing the email management steps I’ve implemented, so here you go:

Five Tips To Show Your Email Who’s Boss:

1. Set Up A Junk Email Account

You know how it is. In a weak moment at 2AM when you can’t sleep you decide that it would be pretty cool to win that HGTV Dream Home, so you enter the contest. But it’s really late, and you’re bleary-eyed, and somehow you miss the fact that 17 little boxes are checked at the bottom of your contest form. 17 little boxes that represent 17 very loosely-related Home and Garden companies who are now going to spam the daylights out of your Inbox. These late-night forays into the Web’s darkest corners are exactly why you need to set up a junk email account. And if you’re single, this is the address to use if you just can’t quite bring yourself to tell that “not a snowball’s chance in hell” potential suitor that you’re absolutely not interested. Just make sure you never use this address for anything important, so that you can confidently delete this Inbox’ entire contents (in my case 5,893 emails) without scanning it first.

2. Set Up A Personal Account

This account is dedicated to the business outside of work that you need to pay attention to. This is the address that you give to your close friends and family members (with the exception of the ones who send those “you’ve been touched by an angel so send this back to me and 10 of your friends and something really amazing will happen by Friday” emails – give them the junk email address!) From this address you should pay bills, schedule personal appointments, play on Facebook, forward tasteless jokes, sell your “Night Nurse” comic book collection on eBay – that kind of thing. Set up this account through a Web based service that you can access from anywhere, but then get into the habit of waiting a few days to respond to your friends and family so they stop expecting instant gratification when it comes to you. (I figure if I write that really small my mom can’t read it).

3. Make A “Needs Action” Folder

Best thing that ever happened to email? Drag and drop. Email generally falls into one of three categories: Trash, Needs Immediate Action (the ones to which you can fire off an immediate reply or forward to the appropriate person), and Needs Action. I’ve have set up a “Needs Action” folder that I drag appropriate emails into so they don’t get lost in the Inbox. This works well for both personal and business accounts. Emails that belong in this folder are the ones that require some kind of response or action, but that I don’t need to or don’t have time to respond to instantly. A more descriptive name for this folder would be the “Hmmm…Let Me Think About That or Research That or Call So and So About That or Figure a Polite Way To Say No To That or Oops Forgot To Do That So I’m Going To Stall While I Do That and Then Get Back To You Folder.” I highly recommend this email tickler system with one caveat – you’ve got to remember to go back to this folder on a regularly scheduled basis.

4. Use the Rules and Alerts Functions

Most email programs have the ability to sort, delete, forward, or even reply to incoming mail automatically, but you have to take the time to set it all up. If my English major background can do it, then I’m guessing you can, too! Here a link to a quick Outlook tutorial.


5. Retrain Your Senders

I’ve saved the most difficult tip for last. We live in a world of instant gratification, and somehow the expectation surrounding email responses has fallen into this category. Personally, I am a responsive, communicative person – so when I get an email I can answer quickly, I do. The problem with that approach, though, is that I’ve set up an expectation amongst my family, friends, and colleagues that I will answer any email, and answer it pronto! After I started to notice a pattern of second emails shortly after the first one that went something like, “Did you get my email?” I began to realize that I had a problem. So, I’ve started to try to structure my email use into my day as a regular structured task, rather than interrupting whatever it is I’m working on the moment I get the email notification. (As you’ll see below, Dan Broerman (@DanBroerman) one of my Twitter colleagues, recommended turning the notifications completely off – I consider that hardcore so I’m not quite there yet).

Here are some tips from the Twitterverse, when asked to Tweet tips for managing email:

Tim Ferriss, the author of the 4-Hour Workweek, has some great additional email management tips on his blog, as does the Harvard Business School, the resource recommended by Steve Sisko (@ShimCode) via Twitter. Any other tips you’d care to share?

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