Saturday, March 13, 2010

Dealing with E-mail Onslaughts

When you arrive in the morning, there are forty of them waiting for you. By the time you’ve answered two or three, six more are waiting, and all the time you’re trying to work, notices of new ones keep popping up on your screen. If there’s anything in the office that can make you feel as though you’re being attacked by armies of malicious elves, it’s e-mail. But it doesn't have to wreck your day. Managing e-mail is all a matter of triaging, the way medical staff in an overloaded ER triage patients. Once you’ve got a logical system of directories, some good SPAM software, and a few habits in place, you’ll be able to calmly contend with whatever passes through your in-box, no matter how excessive the quantity. Here are a few tips:

  1. Many of us feel stressed when going through multiple e-mails, which may contain demands, criticisms, and other unpleasant types of text. To counter this, do what Darrin Zeer and Michael Klein, in Office Yoga call “E-mail meditation,” focusing your attention on one e-mail at a time and breathing extra slowly, making each out-breath twice the length of each in-breath.
  2. Model your handling of e-mail on your handling of paper mail. Create e-mail file drawer directories for each category of paper files. As soon as it becomes difficult to find files in a directory, break the contents into subdirectories, which are like the hanging files in the drawers. When new messages come in that don’t fit into an existing directory or subdirectory, make a new one, just the way you would make a new folder. As much as possible, try to use the same labels for your e-mail system that you use for your papers.
  3. Create an action directory labeled “AAA” for incoming e-mails that require some type of action or follow-up and mark super-urgent/urgent messages with red flags before moving them into this directory. (Labeling the directory “AAA” will make it appear at the top of your directory list, and thus make it easy to see.) Leaving e-mails in your main directory to remind yourself to do something is just as counter-productive as leaving papers out on your desk. When you’ve finished the action or received the response you’re waiting for, move the file into the appropriate File Drawer directory.
  4. Resist the temptation to instantly answer each e-mail as it comes in. Instead, decide on a time for what I call “E-mails and Shorties” each day, when you deal systematically with accumulated e-mails and perform those actions in response to individual messages that can be done quickly. My E-mails and Shorties time is when I first get to the office, mainly because my e-mailbox often contains instructions from my boss. Some workers prefer to do their E-mails and Shorties later in the day so they can get project work done first.
  5. Establish a regular E-mails and Shorties routine. Starting with the oldest messages in your Inbox, read each e-mail, delete or file messages to which you don’t need to respond, and send a brief response to those that require this, if only to let the sender know you received it. If the message requires some type of action that you can do in five minutes or less -- looking up a date, for example -- do it then and there, before moving on to the next e-mail. If it’s going to take more time than that or you’ll need to follow up on it, flip to your task list and enter it, then file the message in your action directory, AAA. This is how I handle e-mail on normal days, and it usually takes me less than an hour.
  6. You also need a routine for days when you’re unusually flooded with e-mails, as when you come back after a vacation, for example. When you’re flooded, instead of beginning with E-mails and Shorties, begin with a Read-only Round, during which you’re only allowed to read, delete, or file e-mails, but not to respond to them or take any actions. After you’ve gone through all the e-mail this way and have dealt with any urgent matters, then go back and do E-mails and Shorties.
  7. Talk with your computer support person about what anti-SPAM programs to use, wthout which you’ll quickly find yourself buried no matter how much time you spend on e-mail.
  8. Never open SPAM, as it may contain viruses, and delete all suspicious e-mails immediately. Change your passwords frequently for extra protection. Be careful when you forward a series of messages not to include confidential information, and never send your social security number through e-mail.
  9. Send e-mails asking to be removed from e-lists that you don’t want to be on.
  10. Set some policies about what types of e-mails to file and what types to delete. Some good candidates for deletion are messages the text of which is contained in a later message, thank-you messages, scheduling messages for past appointments, and any SPAM that sneaks through.
  11. When you send someone a message, CC yourself so you can file a copy of the message into the proper directory. If you forget to do this or if you already have a zillion e-mails in your “Sent” box, don’t worry about it. Sent messages are automatically filed by date, making them relatively easy to find if you’ve got the other half of the correspondence filed in directories, and you can always use the “Search” command to locate lost sent messages.
  12. Do not make your life more stressful than it already is by using Instant Messenger or any sort of instant e-mail notification that beeps at you every time a message comes in when you’re trying to get work done (subtler notices are okay as long as they don’t distract you too much).
  13. If you’re in a high-level position where you receive unusually large quantities of e-mail, have an assistant screen your e-mail and send out routine responses. If you can’t do this, you may have to send out automatic responses that let people know that you aren’t able to answer individual e-mails and suggest they contact you by fax or snail-mail.
  14. Take the time to regularly empty “junk mail” and “deleted mail” bins, as your system may slow down if too much junk mail accumulates in them.
  15. Be considerate in not overloading other people’s mailboxes by sending messages only to the appropriate individuals, not to a group, and never forward questionable e-mails to others. 
Coming Next: Office History 101: Scientific Management


    1. I really agree to your post as i too feel very much hectic in reading all mails including spam one's but now i am looking for a good spam kill software which would make my work simple.

    2. Thanks for your comment. I'm not sure what the best spam software is but will ask our computer people at work and see what they say. Can anyone else help with this?