Thursday, November 12, 2009

Day 89 - How to Survive the Daily E-Mail

It's an attack! For most of us, keeping up with the daily onslaught of email is a challenge. In fact, experts have estimated that e-mail adds an extra 1.23 hours to every workday. This is no different for students, staffer or housewives. I suppose I represent the unemployed, and I can attest that even the loss of a job won't stop the constant barrage of communication.

Is it just me, or will the annoying "Congrats! You just won the (insert name of foreign country here) Lottery" messages never end? The email "attack" continues despite our best efforts and the installation/use of incredibly sophisticated SPAM filters.

If you multiply 1.23 hours times 5 days a week over 52 weeks, that's 320 hours each year spent just "handling" e-mail. Not surprising, I have calculated that I spend twice that. Wow! Let's rein this in and admit we're spending too much time on our email. Experts estimate that time already lost to email had caused U.S. workers (who shave the time elsewhere) into a widespread productivity crunch.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the average worker may be spending as much as four hours a day just sending and receiving e-mail. Of the four hours, one hour is spent on the 36 percent of messages that are completely irrelevant.

So how can you survive the email attack? Start managing the email before it manages you!

* Turn off those e-mail alarms and prompts set up through the preferences tool. Many people use prompts which many be set to go off upon the arrival of e-mail. Don't be fooled by the charming depiction in the old Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan film, You've Got Mail. Prompts are continual interruptions that make some people respond like Pavlov’s dog every time they hear it. Turning off the chime keeps us from interrupting what we are doing to read (probably) non-urgent e-mail in the midst of projects.

* Plan to read and respond to e-mail on a schedule. Create a proactive method of managing mail time by dedicating a specific daypart to e-mail. Do not check e-mail first thing in the morning! In doing so, you risk becoming reactive for the rest of the day, instead of proactive. Spend the first hour every morning working on your most important project or planning.

* Determine exactly how much time you are spending on e-mail; then cut that in half. Deadlines make people work more efficiently. Spending half of your allocated email time in the morning just before lunch, and the other half just before you finish for the day. The time constraint will force you to prioritize. For the average student, spending more than an hour a day on email is a waste of precious class, study, reading, research, writing time. Any email not answered is probably not that important. Delete or archive messages in folders for reference.

* Create e-mail folders, and direct the flow of communication. Most email programs, like Outlook or Mozilla Thunderbird allow you to create folders that mirror the paper filing system. This reinforces any plan for storage and retrieval of important information. In addition, you can indicate which folders reflect active projects and change your e-mail settings to direct e-mail with certain project-related language to those folders in an in-box. Added bonus: while many e-mail systems impose limits on your inbox size, they do not constrict space in folders.

* Use computer storage. For e-mails that need to be kept for a longer period of time, create an electronic filing cabinet, folders with category names that match your physical office or study files. Use Word or any program you like and back-up often.

* Save most recent only. Delete that earlier string in an email chain and just keep the most current message to avoid saving several redundant messages.

* Just save the attachment. If an e-mail comes with an attachment, that is all you really need, so just save the attachment file. Delete the message it came with.

* Control the flow of exchanges. People often feel they must respond to every email instantly. Take time to consider proper responses and slow down the flow of email coming to you. Don't respond if it is not necessary.

* Refrain from sending irrelevant e-mail. Be careful not to send a message just because it’s quick or convenient. The same rules apply to e-mail as with your regular correspondence – if it doesn’t have to be said, don’t say it.

* Create templates. If you frequently send the same types of emails, create templates that you can use over and over (changing only the specifics each time).

* Start a ritual. Every Friday before you end the week, become ruthless. Deleting all email you no longer need, and save those you need for only a week. Use those personal folders, and save anything you need to keep longer in another kind of document. Review items in your folders and delete those that are no longer necessary. Make this a weekly habit and your e-mail will be a lot more manageable. You can also do the same thing at the end of every day, if this is easier for you.

Most of the tips I've offered are just common sense, of course, but surprisingly few people actually implement any of them.

Does this mean people are content being more reactive than proactive? I think not. It's all about the level of information overload in our lives. Organizing your e-mail, like any other organizational behavior, allows you to be more productive, to better utilize your time and energy. So, stop the madness. Do what it takes to gain control of your email. Remember, it's just a communications tool and it was developed to make life easier, not drive you crazy.

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