Abundant Optimism

Helping people regain and keep an optimistic outlook in challenging circumstances and improve their creativity, mind, and skills.

Taming the E-mail Monster

by Tamara Martfeld

I get several e-mails a day at work. I know some people who get hundreds of e-mails per week. There are guidelines out there to handle the high volume of e-mails, however, none of them work well for me. I have developed a system which works well for me and incorporates some of the ideas presented by other people.

The one suggestion which is out there which really does not work for me is to check your e-mail only twice a day – every four hours. When I tried this I ended up with a LOT of e-mails to handle at one time and frequently discovered items which should have been addressed immediately. How often you check your e-mail throughout the day depends on your work, the volume of e-mails you receive, the type of e-mails you receive, and company policy. If you are working on a project where you need huge blocks of uninterrupted time, not looking at the e-mail during that time might be good. If you are on a customer service desk like me it might be a good idea to check your e-mail more frequently.

Basically, I check mine as it arrives. I have the e-mail program notify me when an e-mail arrives with a quick pop-up which disappears fast. I glance at it and look at the topic and from whom the e-mail came. Based on those two points of information I decide whether the e-mail gets opened immediately or if it will wait a short while. Unless I am doing something which should not be stopped I will open the e-mail within about 30 minutes of its arrival, especially if it is from a boss or customer. Many times the e-mail is informational and I can delete it immediately or close it until a better time to handle it.

Frequently the e-mails I receive are requests for information a person needs in order to do their job. I simply answer the question immediately or forward it to the right person for the information. If I forward the e-mail I let the original sender know that the question is being addressed. If I do not take action on the e-mail the person needing the information follows-up, creating additional interruptions. In other words, by addressing the e-mail as soon as I can I am reducing future e-mails or phone calls.

Requests for meetings are also handled immediately unless there is a conflict. I will usually agree to the meeting, make sure it is on my calendar, and then I am done with the e-mail. I will speak to the meeting organizer if I do not feel I need to attend a given meeting, but that is rare in my office.

Most other e-mail I receive is related to a project or other task in which I am involved. If it requires action I will take the action when appropriate. Sometimes the action needed is quick and can be done right away. Other times it will require a little more time and needs to be scheduled.

Now that the e-mails are handled a decision needs to be made on what to do with them. First, delete as many as you can. For those needing saved, many people make folders within the e-mail account and file the e-mails accordingly. There are three problems with this: 1) the allotted storage you are allowed for e-mail by your company is being used, 2) related to number one – when the system notifies you that you are running out of space or your e-mail stops working because “your in-box is full”, you have an issue which needs immediate attention, 3) those e-mails may not be readable when the e-mail system is upgraded – the older the e-mail, the less likely it will be able to be opened by an upgraded system, and 4) you have multiple places to go to in order to find all the information on a related topic. Be smart. File the e-mail elsewhere.

Create folders on your drive for your e-mails. If you already have a folder for a given topic file the e-mails in that folder. There are several ways to file the e-mails which will serve you. First, you can save the e-mail as an e-mail. In Outlook simply open the e-mail then click on file, then save as, then put the e-mail where you want it. I recommend this only for e-mails which you do not need long-term – they may eventually not transfer to upgraded systems. My work e-mail will automatically archive anything over a given time frame and I cannot override the archiving, so I use this method to save active e-mails – ones with action still pending, usually due to my waiting on someone else. Once they are no longer active they are handled in one of the two ways below.

Second, you can save the e-mail in a Word document. There are at least three ways to do this: 1) take a screen print of the e-mail and paste it in the Word document and then save the document, 2) copy the information from the e-mail and paste it in Word, then save, and 3) a combination of the above two – take a screen print of the beginning of the e-mail where you have the information on who sent it, the time it arrived, etc., then copy and paste the message below the screen shot. The third method is the best if you are documenting something.

Third, my favorite, is save the e-mail as an archive PDF. The way I do this is to open a Word document and use one of the options above, then when I save the document I choose PDF as the type of file, then click on options, then check the box next to “ISO 1905-1 compliant”. Unfortunately, I have only seen this option in Windows 7 and above. I am told this makes the file archive quality and enables it to go through many upgrades. If the file is really important, check the archive quality claim with your IT staff.

I try to handle e-mails 100% (to deletion or filing) when I read them, but as everyone knows, that is not always convenient or possible due to time and/or other priorities. My solution is to set aside time every Friday to glance at the list of e-mails and address anything I can. If it is getting near the archive date I create a folder and save any related e-mails to that folder. The rest are deleted or filed. This usually takes less than half an hour.

The results of this system are 1) my e-mails are well-organized – people come to me when they need something because they know I can find it, 2) I am seen by my customers as having excellent customer service and receive many compliments on my fast response, and 3) when I leave on Friday there is frequently no more than 50 e-mails between my sent and incoming folders. I am also up-to-date on all items on my desk and can silently laugh to myself as someone is scrambling to free some of their e-mail space allocations so that they can do their work.

Even if you cannot use my method 100%, I hope you will find something here which you can use. It has worked well for me for about 15 years.

Have a wonderful May. And remember, May 1 is May Day! (An excuse for celebration.)