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Austin American-Statesman: Get Your Email Under Control

June 22, 2009

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by Sarah Lindner


Isn’t e-mail supposed to make work easier?

Quit laughing.

That’s the idea, of course. But the reality is e-mail often disrupts our day or even consumes great swaths of it. We may never feel like it’s under our control.

We got advice from a couple of local experts on trimming down your inbox and managing your everyday e-mail flow.

Maura Thomas is a productivity trainer and owner of She talked about e-mail management recently in a session for Statesman employees.

Lorie Marrero is creator of and author of “The Clutter Diet: The Skinny on Organizing Your Home and Taking Control of Your Life.”

Get a handle on it!

Does the idea of diving into your overflowing e-mail box seem just too overwhelming? Thomas and Marrero both recommend clearing older e-mails out to their own folder temporarily to make the task less daunting and to make managing your inbox easier until you’re fully organized.

When you’re ready to start organizing, you’ll be doing one of three things with each message: trashing it, filing it or taking action on it.

Use your e-mail program’s “sort” function” to help you quickly identify e-mails that can be trashed, Marrero says. Sorting by subject, for example, can help you see which e-mails are all part of the same thread.

Some e-mails you’ll be able to reply to quickly. For others that require more action, decide how you will get them onto your to-do list. “You don’t want to have two places (your list and your inbox) to look for your things to do,” Thomas says. Some mail programs or add-ons (such as MailTags, which Thomas recommends for Mac users) allow you to turn an e-mail item into a calendar appointment or to-do list task.

You’ll want to keep some e-mails as reference. Put them in their own folder or folders, Marrero and Thomas say. With e-mail programs having powerful search functions, you probably won’t need a very elaborate folder system.

Ask yourself two questions when deciding whether to keep an e-mail, Thomas says. What’s the worst that could happen if you needed it and didn’t have it? And could you get the information elsewhere?

Manage it

Follow the same process you used for cleaning out your e-mail to manage it daily: Send quick replies when you can, add e-mails that require more action to your to-do list, delete the rest.

But do it on your own timetable, not when an incoming e-mail notification demands your attention, Thomas says.

A lot of us, whether we realize it or not, have our e-mail programs set to notify us whenever e-mails come in, or at very frequent intervals.

“If your technology is controlling you, that’s your first problem,” Thomas says. When you stop what you’re doing every time an e-mail comes in, you’re working less effectively, she says. “Trying to stay on top of them as they come in is probably not going to get you very far.”

How often should you check e-mail? “For most industries, I tell people twice a day,” Thomas says.

That won’t work in every field or in every office, of course, but even if you’re checking e-mail four or six times a day, that’s still a big improvement over heading to your inbox every time your e-mail notification chimes.

And when you do check e-mail, avoid just skimming for the most important messages and putting off the rest, Thomas says. Take the time to process e-mail right then. Most e-mails can be handled faster than you think, she adds.

Stop the flow

Of course, you’ll have fewer e-mails to manage if you can stop them from getting to you in the first place.

Unsubscribe from the newsletters, sales alerts and other e-mails you’re not using, Marrero says. And think hard before adding new subscriptions. This can be a big step if you’re an information addict who’s worried about missing out on something, she says.

“We have to remember that all of that is out there when we need it,” Marrero says. “It doesn’t have to come to us.”

A good alternative to having information come to your inbox is subscribing to your favorite information sources on an RSS reader instead, Thomas says. The information is compiled for you, and you can read it on your own timetable.

You can also team up with your colleagues to scale back e-mail use in your workplace. Discuss what e-mails all of you do and don’t want to be copied on, Marrero says. “Also have a conversation about what you want to e-mail about and what you want to call about,” she adds.

Another way to defend your inbox is to make full use of your e-mail program’s filtering features. For example, maybe you like your professional group’s newsletter, but you don’t like that it pops up in your inbox three times a day. Find out how to use your e-mail program to automatically route the newsletter to a folder you’ve set up for it, Marrero says.

Thomas recommends the Austin-based service to help wrangle “robot” e-mails, like those order confirmations when you shop online. Otherinbox keeps them out of your regular inbox (and keeps them from distracting you when they come in). The site sends you a summary of all the e-mails daily so you can manage them when you’re ready to.

So does taking all of these steps mean that you’ll keep your inbox perpetually emptied and pristine? Maybe, but don’t worry if it doesn’t.

“It’s just not suited to everybody’s style,” Marrero says. “I always tell people that if you can get it down to 20, that’s great. That’s extremely manageable.”


Need help getting organized? Here are 3 ways we can help:


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