Take Control of Your Email Avalanche

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If time is money, then email is one of my biggest expenses. With more than 4,000 emails -- past and present -- crowding my inbox, it sometimes feels like my email is driving me, rather than me driving it.

Last year The Washington Post wrote about a venture capitalist, Fred Wilson, who declared "email bankruptcy." Wilson, in a move that has been lauded (and even emulated) by some and still criticized by others, simply created a clean slate for himself, saying, "If you've sent me an email (and you aren't my wife, partner, or colleague), you might want to send it again. I am starting over."

Wow, can you imagine declaring yourself an unworthy match for your email? I can see how this might seem like a failure to some people, but for me it sounds downright thrilling. Freedom from email oppression! Fortunately, before you drown in excessive email communications, there are a whole host of email management solutions to try. Calling it quits may be temporarily liberating, but email isn't going away; your best bet (and mine) is to develop a stronger plan of attack.

Here are some great strategies for kicking your email out of the driver's seat:

  • Learn from the experts. Ask your office's tech guru for a crash course in your email system and its capabilities. Many of us don't take advantage of features that could help us take better charge simply because we don't know they're there.
  • Create a smart folder system. Give some important thought to creating your folder system, factoring in the nature of your work. Does it make sense to file your work according to client, project, date, topic, or something else? Label your folder clearly -- that cutesy name may seem clever now, but clarity is a much better organizing tool. Lastly, avoid creating too many folders; setting up a slew of narrow categories can actually make it harder to locate important emails later.
  • Keep the big picture in mind (and on-screen). When your email account is the default view on your computer screen, it stands to reason that it will dictate or drive much of how you are allocating your time. Instead, set your computer to view your calendar and/or to-do list, both reminders of the big picture -- what needs doing and when -- rather than the email minutia.
  • Put email in its place. Set your computer to route certain messages to folders before they ever reach your inbox. You may want to route any emails on which you've been cc'd (presumably FYI, rather than items for your immediate action), digests from listservs, online subscriptions, and the like; these are emails that don't require immediate action.
  • Use clear and detailed subject headers. We've all gotten emails with the header line left blank or with an enigmatic title like "Question." Instead, accord your header the same importance as the title of a presentation. You'll be able to locate specific emails much more quickly if you (and your colleagues) use descriptive headers.
  • Close it up. If you have an important task to accomplish that's unrelated to email, log off of your account. That way you won't be distracted by each new email that comes in. If you fear you're getting addicted to email, set up a schedule for checking in, rather than staying continuously plugged.
  • Sort it out. If you're interested in selectively purging your email account, try sorting the emails according to who sent them (alphabetically) rather than by date. This allows you to quickly identify big categories of emails you can delete, rather than requiring (as by date) that you look at each individual email to assess its importance.
  • Read and delete. It sounds like a no-brainer to delete unnecessary emails when they come in, and yet, many of us don't take the few extra seconds required to do so. Delete regularly and often so that you don't have to manage the same frivolous email more than once.
  • Wave the flag. No, not the flag of surrender raised by Fred Wilson, but the flags that indicate the importance of a particular email. Flagging items allows you to identify top priorities quickly and even sort according to level of priority.
  • Pick up the phone. Alexander Graham Bell might be a little perturbed to see how quickly his amazing invention has been usurped by email. Don't forget the phone: Sometimes it's better to call to resolve a problem or discuss details rather than to rely on a lengthy email exchange.

This article ran originally in June 2007, but we just rediscovered it in our email box. It has been updated.

Fool contributor Elizabeth Brokamp is a licensed professional counselor who talks money with her honey, Robert Brokamp, editor of The Motley Fool's Rule Your Retirement newsletter service. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

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