Managing the e-mail explosion

E-mail, the killer app for the Internet, can also be a real time-killer.

By 2002, we’ll spend more than four hours each day reading and answering an average of 50 work-related messages, according to a Ferris Research report on managing e-mail overload. Even now, we commonly deal with 30 business messages daily, up 50 per cent from a year ago.

Just ignoring the mail is not an answer. As anyone who has failed to respond to an important note knows, it’s sometimes more time-consuming to ignore an e-mail than to answer it. So, one way or another, we’re going to have to deal with that electronic mail mountain.

Ferris Research offers some tips and e-mail tools:

Set up folders to organize mail. Ferris suggests an “urgent” folder for top priority tasks; an “aging” folder for mail older than 30 days; and putting all “cc” messages into a folder that doesn’t require action. You might also create folders for tasks, and one for messages tied to upcoming events that don’t require immediate answers. Beyond that, sort messages automatically by sender and date.

Filter junk e-mail into the Delete folder–a clue is a subject line offering “one-time opportunity.” Scan its contents occasionally to be sure you don’t miss something useful.

See if your e-mail program lets you view the first few lines in a message as well as the subject line; it might be enough to handle the message.

Rely on integrated group-scheduling programs such as Exchange, GroupWise, and Lotus Notes to automatically update your calendar.

Write boilerplate text to answer common e-mail inquiries, and consider automatic replies as well. Increasingly sophisticated software can read e-mail, categorize it, refer it, and prepare draft replies.

Subscribe to mail lists sparingly.

Maintain separate personal and business e-mail accounts.

Break Backlog Behavior

Changing your habits also eases e-mail pressure. Ferris suggests setting a time in both the morning and afternoon to handle e-mail, and dealing with each message only once.

Etiquette also applies to e-mail, the researchers say–and you may spread good habits by example: Don’t overwhelm a colleague’s mailbox with large attachments. Write clear, succinct subject headers, which help to sort mail. For that matter, write clear, succinct messages. Don’t label a message “high priority” unduly, and use cc: sparingly. Avoid chain letters and jokes. Remember, not every e-mail requires an answer.

Businesses can force the issue by setting e-mail policy about acceptable size, style, and use of mailing lists (or spam), Ferris suggests.

The e-mail challenge continues to grow. Besides getting digital messages on your PC, you’ll get them on pagers, handhelds, and cell phones. Also, Ferris expects spam will occupy 40 per cent of your mailbox in the future. But the researchers also foresee additional tools to help us deal with them. A single mailbox could collect e-mail from those numerous sources. Tools to automatically sort e-mail will become more sophisticated, and you’ll have more ways to take out the digital trash.

In the meantime, you might just take this step now: Deactivate the alert for new e-mail. There’s only so many times a person can hear “you’ve got mail” in whatever form.