We all get an amazing amount of e-mail, customers, co-workers, business associates, friends and family all send us messages day and night – and that’s before we consider all the automated message we get from every service we ever used and - of course – spam, it's easy to see why people often feel like they are drowning in e-mail, you can even spend entire work days just answering messages.
But fortunately your can regain control of your mail box with just a few simple techniques.
People love conversations, its human nature, so it shouldn't surprise anyone that people tend to reply to e-mail messages.
The faster you reply to messages in your inbox the faster you'll get replies to your replies, also, if you send messages faster you'll have time to send more messages – and get more replies you have to read and reply to, you just can't win by being faster.
On the other hand, if you slow down you'll write less messages, that's automatically equals less replies in your inbox, also, if you spend a little extra time thinking about you messages there's always a chance you won't miss some crucial detail and the recipient of your message won't have a reason to reply and ask you about it.
I think it's unacceptable to miss e-mail from customers – so I won't use any spam filter that doesn't let me review the spam message for filtering mistakes, fortunately for me, there are some great spam filters out there who fit with my uncompromising worldview that saving me from spam is not an excuse for bad customer service.
I use the free [SpamBayes] (http://spambayes.sourceforge.net/) myself, it's a filter that learns based on your e-mail – so it's completely inaccurate out of the box – but after about a week of training it becomes amazingly accurate, SpamBayes divides incoming mail into three groups: good messages go into my inbox, Spam goes into the junk mail folder and messages the filter isn't sure about go in a "junk suspect" folder.
I review the junk suspect folder only once a day and the junk mail folder every two to three days, those almost never contain good messages and I can review all new messages in those folders in less than a minute – so this reduces the spam problem from unmanageable to negligible.
The important thing is to use a good spam filter and to not review junk messages too often.
I've used SpamBayes as an example because that's what I use, there are other excellent spam filters, if you have a good spam filter please recommend it in the comments below
People don't really need your replies right away, they want you to reply right away and your quick replies are valuable for them, mostly because it's faster and easier to send you a quick message then do any research themselves – but they don’t need it (in other words, they want you to do their work for them but they will do it themselves if you won't do it quickly enough).
Trust me, if there's an emergency and someone truly needs you right away they will just pick up the phone.
Add that to the simple fact that it's faster, easier and less stressful to answer all messages at once then as a constant unending stream of interruptions lasting the entire day and this technique becomes obvious.
Set aside specific times to read and answer e-mail, only two and three times a day at the same time, choose those times so that the day's e-mail divides about equally between the e-mail checks.
The best times to check e-mail are when you arrive at the office, right before you leave or before/after lunch, that way it's less likely that those times will arrive in the middle of, and interfere with, other work.
Depending on your work environment you may want to set an auto-responder that will tell people when you answer e-mail and how to reach you in case of emergency – or you can just let them figure it out for themselves.
A nice bonus is that when people figure out it takes you hours to respond they will be less likely to ask you questions they can answer themselves with a little research.
You should read every e-mail just once, if you need to reply do so immediately, if it requires more work copy it to your to-do list (you do have one, right?) if you should do something at a later date make a note on your calendar – never use your inbox as your to-do list.
After you read a message you can delete it, archive it, tag it or copy it to some folder – the important thing is that you should never look at it again, except if you specifically search for it, obviously.
As a side note, if you use Microsoft Outlook the free version of xobni will add excellent search and history views to Outlook so you'll always find old messages easily when looking for them.
At some point you will get a message you need to reply to but not right now, it’s a only a quick reply so it’s not really worth an entry in your to do list – so you leave it in your inbox to be handled later.
Before you know what happened your inbox is an unmanageable collection of new mail, old mail you already answered and message you should handle later.
The only way to avoid this is to keep your inbox empty at all cost, read a message once and then move it out of inbox.
If people send you jokes that you suspect aren't funny, links to amusing videos on YouTube that usually don't amuse you or, and this is the important part, work related document for things you are currently not working on – just ignore it.
Yes, ignore it, don't waste your time on irrelevant stuff, it's very fast and easy to add an e-mail address to the CC line, on the other hand it's extremely time consuming to read everything someone thought you may someday find interesting.
Mark it as read, tag it or move it to some folder if you like and forget about it, if you do need it in the future use search to find it (Gmail obviously has great built in search, Xobni -mentioned above – will give you search capabilities if you use Outlook, if you know of a search plug-in for other e-mail programs please tell us about them in the comments below).
All those rules and techniques are fine and good, but what to do if you have tens or hundreds of unread messages in your inbox right now? How can you turn this situation around without spending entire days reading old e-mails?
The answer – Just move everything into an “Archive” folder and forget about it.
The exact time frame depends on your line of work, but if someone sent you a message, didn't get a reply for more than a month and didn't find a way to shout at you for not answering – then either it wasn't that important or he solved the problem without you.
Just read the last two to four weeks of messages and ignore anything earlier.
For the message you do need to handle it’s easier if you sort (or even better group) your messages by sender – this will place entire conversations together.
If you follow the simple techniques outlined above you will drastically reduce the amount of e-mail you have to handle every day, even more drastically reduce the amount of time spent reading and answering e-mail and most important, get rid of the stress and sense of helplessness that most people feel because of e-mail.