SAN FRANCISCO – Thanks to the avalanche of messages they receive every day, many professionals and office workers say they suffer from e-mail overload. It doesn't have to be that way.
People feel "they are complete slaves to e-mail," said Julie Morgenstern, founder of Julie Morgenstern Enterprises, a New York-based time-management consulting firm.
"They can't control their knee-jerk response to check and it absolutely impairs their productivity," said Morgenstern, author of "Never Check E-Mail in the Morning."
Many people allow their inbox to dictate their workday, responding to messages immediately. Doing that means "you are not in charge of your own career, your own job," Morgenstern said. "Everyone else is controlling you."
One reason we let e-mail rule our time: It's often the easiest task. "People's workloads are so intimidating now ... you use e-mail as an escape," Morgenstern said. "It gives you a false sense of accomplishment."
There are ways to handle the overload.
Many people check e-mail but don't take the time to decide what to do with it, said David Allen, author of "Getting Things Done" and chairman of The David Allen Company, an Ojai, Calif.-based productivity consulting firm.
"Most people's inboxes are these numbing events," Allen said. "They have all these different kinds of things that mean different things in the same place."
One of Allen's tips: The two-minute rule: "Anything you can finish in two minutes you should do right then."
For e-mails that need more time, one option is to file those messages in folders — including "action" items, "waiting" items that can be deleted once a temporary issue is complete and "reference" items.
"If your actionable things are set up separate from your reference items, that's going to clean up your head and life a ton. If you have different meanings inside of one pile, you go numb because your brain can't sort it," Allen said.
Still, a better strategy is to push e-mails out of your in-box and onto a tasks list — that avoids the problem of filing items into a folder you never check, said Allen, referring to some e-mail programs' "tasks to do" option. Or, simply write the task on your own to-do list.
Merlin Mann, San Francisco-based editor of 43folders.com, a site focusing on personal productivity, said the key is to "get really good at deciding what the e-mail means to you the second you open it ... checking e-mail and not doing anything about it is the worst habit," he said.
You decide when
Another strategy to take control of your inbox: Turn off "you have mail" alerts that interrupt you as you work. Instead, decide to check your inbox regularly, whether it's once every 30 minutes or three times a day.
"That creates a much more peaceful and productive work environment," said Mike Song, a Guilford, Conn., productivity consultant, operator of HamsterRevolution.com and co-author of "The Hamster Revolution: Manage Your e-mail Before it Manages You."
"Turn off all notifications, and then when you do go to e-mail, go through every piece of e-mail and figure out what it means to you," Mann said.
Said Morgenstern: "Give yourself 30 minutes every couple of hours to go through e-mail, open, make the darned decision, delete or file it, and move on."
Another idea if your job allows it: Ignore your inbox for the first hour every morning, instead focusing on an important project. "Once you open the e-mail there are a million and one interruptions," Morgenstern said. "It's very hard to settle your mind down and concentrate."
Ignoring e-mail for the first hour is not easy. "The first day [clients] try this they actually don't get anything done. They're so distracted with worry about 'what's in my inbox?'" Morgenstern said.
"By the third day they're able to focus and the productivity spike is so dramatic ... they don't have this big, undone critical task weighing over their heads. It's behind them. That fuels their energy and they get more done the rest of the day."
Use folders to organize messages, but make sure folders don't overlap, Song said. For instance, if you have three folders labeled "urgent," "widgets" and "proposals," what do you do with an e-mail related to "urgent widget proposals"? Create folders based on content, Song said. If an item is urgent, move the message to a task list or calendar.
Some are opposed to folders. "The question to ask yourself is how many times each week do I use that structure to find something, as opposed to it just being a taxonomically satisfying exercise?" Mann said. He archives all messages in one folder. "Most modern e-mail applications have excellent search capabilities."
Send fewer messages
Another way to avoid e-mail overload: Receive fewer e-mails. Unsubscribe from mail you don't need, and reduce the number of messages you send. "Because of the boomerang effect of e-mail, if you become more judicious, you eventually get less and less e-mail," Song said.
This includes clicking "reply all" less often. "Over 80% of all professionals feel their colleagues overuse 'reply to all,'" Song said, based on research he's done at client companies.
Also, make messages and subject lines concise. That helps the receiver decide how to act on the message and to find it quickly later. "A poor quality or low quality message takes longer to read, longer to comprehend," Song said.
Use available tools
e-mail tools can automatically filter low-priority e-mail to folders you check less frequently, say, once a week. In some programs, that's as easy as right-clicking on a message and creating a rule.
Also, "a lot of people don't know that you can drag a message from the inbox over to the calendar," said Peggy Duncan, an Atlanta productivity expert, operator of PeggyDuncan.com and author of "Conquer e-mail Overload with Better Habits, Etiquette, and Outlook 2003."
And, use templates or, in Microsoft Outlook, the "signature" function to easily insert often-typed messages.
"I have all kinds of signatures saved," Duncan said. "I have signatures on how to start a business, signatures with directions to my office."
Copyright (c) 2007 MarketWatch, Inc.