Monday, March 16, 2009

Web Secret #43: 5 Tips for Controlling the e-mail Monster

In a recent New York Times article with the catchy title An Empty In-Box, or With Just a Few E-Mail Messages?, author Farhad Manjoo suggests various techniques for maintaining control over your e-mail in-box. Prominently, he recommends archiving e-mails.

Farhad, I am with you, an overflowing in-box drives me nuts. But archiving? No, no, no - DELETE, DELETE, DELETE. Ruthless deletion is the key to mastering your in-box.

Still, not all of Farhad's suggestions are bad, so with a nod to him, here are my tips for taming the e-mail monster:

Tip 1 - DELETE. I basically agree with Farhad's suggestion to only check your e-mail in a focused manner, no more than once every 20 minutes. But after that, we part company. My first tip is to delete any e-mails that fall into any of the following categories - and whenever possible without opening them:
  • spam that somehow didn't make it into your spam folder - sample subject line: "I can make you bigger"
  • chain letters
  • jokes
  • cartoons
  • FYI's
  • thank yous
  • Anything remotely related to Twitter
  • requests to join LinkedIn, become someone's friend on Facebook/My Space/etc., unless you are desperate for friendship or currently/soon to be job hunting
  • info about conferences/events/parties you have no intention of attending
  • work related stuff you have no intention of doing, reading, or responding to
  • etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
If you deleted too aggressively, you can always hunt down the e-mail in your deleted folder. "The Johnson Report? I just skimmed it." Then you dig up the Johnson Report.

Tip 2 - Delete your deleted e-mails. You know those e-mails you deleted? After a couple of months, there will be hundreds of them accumulating in your "Deleted Items" box. So now, every three months or so, you delete everything in the "Deleted Items" box, EXCEPT for the last couple of weeks of most recently deleted e-mails. Whew! That feels GREAT!

Tip 3 - Manage the stuff you didn't delete PRONTO. Here I agree with Farhad - if you can respond to it in less than two minutes, do so immediately. If you can forward it to another person to deal with - that's a slam dunk - forward it RIGHT NOW!

Tip 4 - Manage the leftovers. If you have been as merciless as Attila the Hun, there should be very little leftover e-mails to deal with. There may be a handful of informational missives that you want to keep for future reference. DO NOT ARCHIVE THEM - keep them in your in-box! My experience - sorry Farhad - is that if you archive that stuff - you will never reread it/deal with it/look at it again. NEVER. As for the rest, there may be a few messages that require a more complex response on your part. Don't procrastinate more than 24-48 hours on those.

Tip 5 - Back to Tip 1. Every month or so, comb through your in-box. That informational stuff you hung on to? If you haven't needed it to date - DELETE. Those e-mails requiring a more elaborate response? If you didn't deal with them yet, they can't be that important - DELETE. Remember, if you overdo the deleting, you have three months to excavate that critical e-mail from your deleted items file.

If you think my approach is too brutal, consider the recommendation given at the 2008 Web 2.0 Expo presentation, "Surviving and Thriving Amid Information Overload." Speaker Paul Christen suggested the opposite tactic. WARNING - not for the faint of heart. Paul suggested deleting NOTHING, ever. Any e-mails he doesn't immediately respond to, he just marks as read, and never touches again. He figures that if it's important, the sender will resend it to him at some point, or maybe even give him a call (how retro).

So it's your choice - delete almost everything, or delete almost nothing - either way, you will save time to tackle what really matters, whatever that is...

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