Expert tips to guard against e-mail overload

E-mails may clog your Inbox, but it doesn’t follow that they must also saturate your workday.

You can fight e-mail overload with a few commonsense practices, experts say.

Given the pervasiveness of e-mail, these are strategies that nearly everyone can put into practice immediately.

Cambridge, Mass.-based IT consultant firm Forrester Research estimates that 97 per cent of all consumers and 94 per cent of all marketers use e-mail.

Like a telephone ringing, the new e-mail notification sound has a sense of immediacy about it.

Minutes or even hours can be wasted clicking on each new message as it enters your Inbox and then deciding what to do with it. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

“We have created a cultural urgency with e-mail that is not correct,” says Baha Habashy, founder of Integrity+ Consulting, a Markham, Ont.-based effectiveness management advisory group.

In fact, don’t use e-mail unless you have to, Habashy says, but instead walk over and talk to your co-worker, or pick up the phone for better communication.

“An e-mail written in haste will transmit only words void of tone and meaning.”   

It is up to both users and e-mail marketers alike to create a proper respect for the Inbox.

Here are some tips you can put into practice as an e-mail receiver, released last week by the E-mail Experience Council, the e-mail marketing arm of the Direct Marketing Association, a global trade association of business and non-profit organizations that use and support direct marketing tools and techniques.

Take action when you receive an e-mail

Don’t read the e-mail and then let in languish in your Inbox when you can take care of it right away. Take action and delete or archive that e-mail, or reply or forward the message.

“If you can handle an e-mail in two minutes, you should do so immediately,” says Chad White, director of retail insights for the council, sharing a tip he attributes to author David Allen.

If you’ve already lost focus on the task at hand, interrupted by a new e-mail alert, you might as well spend the time and deal with the message, he adds.

If you can provide an answer, then reply right away. If you don’t know, then forward it to someone who does.

Respect others’ Inboxes

The golden rule applies to e-mail too: send only the messages that you would want to receive.

Don’t carbon copy people who don’t need to know the information in the message, and don’t confirm receipt of a message unless it’s required.

Lazy reply-all e-mailers cause a lot of undue frustration, says Wayne Carrigan, executive vice-president of Toronto-based ThinData Inc., a e-mail marketing campaign adviser.

“I think this is a really big source of Inbox clutter,” he says. “You get all these e-mails that don’t really apply to you.”

Take the extra step of just hitting “reply” and then adding the addresses of those who should receive the information. Otherwise, you’re just creating additional work for people.

Organize your Inbox

Just like you have different boxes on your desk to organize papers, you can organize e-mails into different folders with clients like Microsoft Outlook. You can even set up rules to have e-mails directly routed to these folders.

Many people know they can set up the folders, but then waste time dragging their e-mails into the right place, White says. “It can happen automatically.”

Newsletters and e-mail discussion lists can be a big source of e-mail traffic and crowd out your Inbox from real business matters. Keep that space clear by setting up rules.

“It’s a nice way of making sure your Inbox is for important things,” White adds.

When you get those e-mails that require a longer period of attention, don’t feel you need to tackle it immediately, Habashy says. Schedule an appointment with yourself to work on it in your calendar.

“If you think reading an attached report will take half an hour, then block off that half hour next week to properly deal with it,” he says.

Actively manage newsletters

Once you’ve got those newsletters flowing to a pre-destined folder, make sure you’re getting the content you want. Many people never bother to update the preferences for their e-mail subscriptions.

“There are studies that show people do a pretty lousy job of going and updating their preferences in the settings that are readily available in the newsletters they subscribe too,” Carrigan says.

If you’ve changed your job role or picked up a new hobby, it might be time to review your preferences and check out the new content available. Or just check once every few months for new content options.

Moderate Inbox exposure

Many workers are in the habit of having Outlook running constantly, but don’t get too bogged down by answering e-mails every two minutes.

Set your e-mail to refresh at a time interval that is acceptable to your job requirements, and don’t be afraid to close your client while you focus on a project.

“It depends on what sort of job you have and how urgent your e-mails tend to be,” White says. “E-mail can be very interruptive.”

If rapid e-mail response isn’t required in your job, try scheduling a block of time or two each day to handle your e-mail, Habashy says.

“You read, think, respond and file,” with this method, he adds. “Most of the time, people just look at their e-mail, put it down and don’t handle it methodically.”

Remember that when you are sick or go on vacation, the world doesn’t end when your e-mail messages aren’t answered. The same is true of a normal workday.

But if you do go on vacation, try sorting all the piled-up e-mails by sender, not by date. This allows you to view the conversation chain and respond to only the most recent e-mail in the conversation.

Help fight spam

A big part of fighting e-mail spam is keeping your anti-virus software up to date.

Unprotected computers are at risk of becoming zombies – drones that are used to send out more spam.

“If you hate spam, you might be shocked to know you’re part of the problem if you’re not keeping your anti-virus up to date,” White says.

Also, never reply to a spam message or click on the links. Be wary of any attachments you receive through e-mail, even from a recognizable address.

Tips for e-mail marketers

Not all mass e-mailers are spammers. If your company has a legitimate e-mail marketing campaign, make sure you’re not contributing to Inbox junk.

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