Master Your E-Mail (So It Doesn't Master You)

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I've seen a few reports that say kids these days think e-mail is passé. Heh. That may be, but for people who have actual work to do, the inbox remains the center of the universe. And I have some tricks to help you take that universe in the palm of your hand and utterly dominate it--you know, just in case e-mail doesn't go the way of the telegraph anytime soon.

Like many of you, I field hundreds of incoming e-mail messages each day. Processing them all--from opening the inbox to making good decisions about which items to act on, which to file for reference, which to delete, and which to mark as spam--takes more than just time and energy. It takes planning. Here are some useful tactics to add to your e-mail strategy so you can tame your inbox and work more productively.

Note: These tips aren't fancy--they're basic. But even highly productive people stand to benefit from reviewing sound fundamentals for effective work habits. None of the ideas in this story are entirely my own (many of them come out of the massive community of productivity enthusiasts, honed from principles preached by writers such as David Allen and Tim Ferriss), but I practice all of them as diligently as I can, and I've seen tremendous productivity benefits from using them.

1. Zero your inbox.

When was the last time your inbox was completely empty? Most people haven't seen an uncluttered inbox since they set up their mail account. And that's a shame, because attaining the state known colloquially as "inbox zero" is one of the most liberating experiences a person can have in the Internet age.

It's a transient feeling, of course, because new messages are likely to arrive at any minute. But if you process everything in your inbox effectively and strategically, you can keep your list of pending messages down to a manageable size throughout the day and shut down your PC with the knowledge that, though new messages may come in overnight, you've addressed everything that came your way today.

Many of the tips in this article are designed to help you achieve this blissful state of emptiness. But make no mistake: If you really want to master your mail fully, an empty inbox should be among your daily objectives.

2. Use folders sparingly.

Wouldn't you rather have 0 e-mail messages in your inbox than 33,647?
E-mail folders can be useful for organizing old messages that you want to keep for reference, keeping your inbox clear of old clutter. (In Gmail, folders are known as "labels," though the idea is the same.) Beware the urge to create more folders (and especially subfolders) than you can consciously track from day to day.

The purpose of folders is to make old messages easy to find, and the more folders you have, the less successfully they fulfill that purpose. When your folder list gets so long that you can't see all of them all in one glance, you're unlikely to maintain adequate awareness of what's in them, which ones require attention, and which are just storing aging detritus. So avoid having more folders than you need for tracking active projects.

Use whatever folders you keep as "trusted buckets" (in the parlance of Getting Things Done author David Allen) that you check periodically during their useful life. For instance, I have an HR folder where I keep important documents and messages from our human resources department that I know I'll need to refer to later. I have an Invoices folder that holds new invoices that require my attention, and so on. I review the contents of these folders about once a week and remove any messages that have been adequately addressed or are no longer relevant.

Every message worth keeping that doesn't go into one of my seven or eight active folders gets archived in Gmail, and is available via a quick search. Pulling up a three-year-old message from my boss about an important past project that we want to revisit or refer to usually takes me only about 20 seconds with a search. Hunting through dozens of cluttered folders in my sidebar might take 10 minutes or more--and might not turn up the needed message at all.

3. Use filters sparingly.

Separating the wheat in your inbox from the chaff shouldn't take all day.
Much of the e-mail I receive every day is merely informational--the product of colleagues including me on threads about the status of projects that I need to be in the loop about but don't need to act on. Many of these go to e-mail groups that I'm subscribed to through our corporate mail server, and they often include status keywords (such as "got it") in the subject line. Setting up filters to spot the keywords that are least relevant to me--or to gather messages from a specific group and sweep them out of my inbox to a trusted folder--keeps me focused on the primary tasks of my day while leaving me the freedom to go to a single, known location to review the messages in a particular category.

Filters are also good for gathering messages about an important project or event into one place for quick perusal. For example, I'll be attending the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, and my inbox is starting to fill up with e-mail notes from people who want to meet me at the show or tell me about the products they're announcing. Because these incoming messages roll in at a fairly brisk clip, I've set up a filter top prevent them from reaching my inbox at all, instead diverting them to a special CES folder. I can peruse the contents of this folder once a day and respond to messages about the show without letting it dominate my work life for a month in advance.

Unfortunately, overuse of filters can be just as counterproductive as overreliance on folders. Letting filters handle too much of your incoming mail invites you to lose track of what's passing through your inbox. If you have 20 filters sending messages to 20 different folders, there's no way you can stay on top of what's coming in.

Several of my colleagues use folders and filters to capture messages from specific people into folders dedicated to just that sender. They swear by it, but they also seem to miss more than their fair share of messages. When I say "Hey, I didn't hear back from you about that e-mail I sent the other day," they invariably grab their mouse and click the folder with my name on it to go looking for the message. And sure enough, it's there, two days old, unread. Overfiltering is a problem.

Next page: When to respond from scratch, and when canned replies work

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