Overwhelmed by e-mail, we often wish for more time in the day to defend ourselves. But Tom Gibson, a trainer with Slipstream, a Vancouver-based company that specializes in best practices for e-mail work, suggests you probably just need to overhaul your approach:
You don't want to keep everything in your inbox but you also probably want to reduce the number of folders you currently use to file e-mail. A 2006 study, E-mail Overload At Work, found that the more folders we use, the more our stress levels increase.
FOCUS ON FINDING, NOT FILING
If you can find e-mails without filing them to folders, why spend time manually organizing? Searching has been getting faster in Microsoft Outlook, the most common e-mail package, and he suggests you re-acquaint yourself with its power. "Outlook was so awful in the past many of us trained ourselves not to use it," he says. There are also third-party search tools you can adapt.
He usually recommends NEO (an acronym for Nelson E-mail Organizer) which works within Outlook, or X1, which can search e-mail and your entire desktop, but requires you to return to Outlook after the search.
He also suggests you become more effective at browsing - looking within folders for an e-mail - by learning to use Outlook's full power. For example, you can sort under different categories (to/from/subject) or you can create "virtual folders" that can help you, say, to check all e-mails from your boss. NEO can help with browsing as well.
Conventional advice is not to check e-mail too often during the day. But the 2006 study also found that people who get a lot of e-mail experience less stress if they check regularly. So do that, but organize your e-mail so that it highlights the important material rather than having your messages arrive without distinction. Separate out less-relevant bulk e-mail, such as newsletters and company e-mails, which can obscure the urgent e-mails you need to respond to. They can be filtered to a special folder, or go to a different e-mail account.
People who attend meetings, or who manage others, get significantly more e-mail than those who don't. If your job involves such collaboration with others, you need to train them. Mr. Gibson asks you to identify the five or so people you e-mail with the most, and rank them according to communication effectiveness. Then connect with them to tell them what works best for you in e-mail and other communication, and to learn their preferences.
Aim to empty your inbox every day. If you can completely deal with an e-mail in three minutes, do it right from the inbox. If not, move it to a "To Do" folder. When you finish going through the inbox, you can then tackle some of the tasks in the To Do folder.
GET OUT OF POOR E-MAIL THREADS
Sometimes we get ensnarled in a long thread of e-mails that meander endlessly. When an e-mail thread heads sideways, learn to recognize it immediately, and switch to a better channel of communication.