To E-Mail Nirvana
New York -
You crank up your computer every morning, click to your e-mail and--whap!--a
slew of messages demands attention.
E-mail can be a great tool, but many misuse it, turning what should
be quick, easy communication into a laborious, time-consuming management
"Many people use the inbox as a to-do list, calendar and filing
system," says Mark Hurst president and founder of Creative Good, a
consulting firm in New York. "File some messages and delete most of
them, but without a doubt, don't let anything stay in your inbox
Hurst says effective e-mail management is built on filters, filing
and ruthless use of the delete key.
He offers this distinction to better define the problem: The number
of new messages received each day is "volume" while the number of
e-mails sitting in the inbox is "message count." The second is the key
measure of effective e-mail management.
"A user who gets 100 messages a day may not be overloaded at all if
the message count is low," Hurst says. "Conversely, a user who gets ten
e-mails a day may be overloaded."
If the number of messages stacked in the inbox becomes too large and
difficult to manage, you're overloaded. The e-mail system then becomes a
black hole rather than a productivity tool and your output will suffer.
"If overload is the problem, then removing the load is the solution,"
Hurst says in a special report, "Managing Incoming E-mail." "Here's how
to manage incoming e-mail: Keep the inbox empty--clear out incoming
e-mails before they pile up or you lose your ability to manage them
But there's just one catch and, unlike catch-22, it's not the least
"It may be a simple solution, but it's not easy," Hurst says.
"Achieving simplicity--or emptiness, in this case--takes time and
continued improvement. It's difficult but better than drowning in
e-mails and becoming less effective. Only an empty inbox will allow
users to take full advantage of the benefits of e-mail."
The first step is deleting all spam. Never reply to spam because the
spammer will know your e-mail address is active and sell it to others at
a premium. The result: more spam.
Next, read all personal e-mail from friends or family and save
selected messages as needed elsewhere on your computer or print out
important notes. It might be a good idea to check your personal e-mail
account at work and use it to chitchat and exchange goofball jokes with
your lunatic friends while reserving your company account for (gasp)
work-related items. Admit it: This would sharply reduce the volume of
incoming mail on the company e-mail system.
Hurst says messages should be sorted by date with the oldest message
at the top of the list. Each message should be opened and the
appropriate action--filing or deletion-- should be taken quickly. This
will prevent the accumulation of a 500-message stack in your inbox.
Hurst says newsletters should be read or scanned quickly, but never
filed because then you'll have two cluttering up your inbox when the
next arrives. FYIs, or non-actionable information such as an answer to a
question or notification of an event, should be read quickly, filed if
necessary and deleted as soon as possible.
Hurst urges use of the "two-minute rule" for to-dos. If the task
outlined in the e-mail takes two minutes or less to complete, even if it
means getting out of your chair, do it immediately and delete the
If you're way behind in managing your e-mail, Hurst recommends a
ruthless cleaning out of the clutter in the inbox to allow users to
manage e-mail effectively with just a few minutes work each day. It may
take several whacks to get through all the old junk, but once it's
cleaned out, it's done and future management of the inbox can be handled
in just a few minutes each day.
E-mail arrives throughout the day so it's impossible to keep the
inbox empty at all times. Hurst recommends dealing with e-mails as soon
as possible after each arrives or setting aside a few minutes several
times a day to complete the task.
"Users shouldn't let an inbox go more than one business day without
emptying," he says.
The technique will work for Microsoft (nasdaq:
people ) Outlook, Yahoo! (nasdaq:
people ) Mail, Qualcomm's (nasdaq:
people ) Eudora, IBM's (nyse:
people ) Lotus Notes and Google's (nasdaq:
people ) Gmail.
Google says its e-mail users can sort through old messages and won't
ever have to throw anything out. This raises a basic question: Who wants
to save old jokes, memos or answers to questions you've long forgotten?
Filters will screen out most of the junk. For starters, Hurst
recommends setting up your filter to accept mail from everyone in your
address book. Suspected spam, including any e-mail containing viruses or
unknown attachments, gets sent to purgatory--a folder for suspected junk
mail from unknown senders. Any e-mail with three or more consecutive
exclamation points gets zapped. Set the filter to automatically delete
any e-mail containing raunchy words you'd expect to find in sexually
Have the filter kill any e-mail with "adv" in the message line.
Expand the list of subject lines to kill starting with obvious pitches
such as "Free Long Distance," "Find background info about anyone," "Quit
Smoking" and "Be your own boss." Compiling the list requires some
thought because many spam subject lines appear in legitimate e-mail such
as free, mortgage, university, diploma and life insurance.
Software will thin the thundering herd of spam seeking to graze and
fatten your inbox, but it's not the final, or best, way to manage
"'Delete' is one keystroke," Hurst says. "I don't know what's easier